I am a vaccine skeptic skeptic, meaning I absolutely believe in vaccines and have little time for people who imagine negative health outcomes from them. I think there’s ample evidence that vaccines are the single greatest health advancement that Mankind has ever known, and most beliefs that they’re a sinister force masking serious health complications are ridiculous.
So I was concerned about the story of the 1976 swine flu “epidemic” and subsequent vaccine program. It seems to be rich fodder for people who want to condemn vaccines.
In February 1975, several hundred Army recruits in Fort Dix, New Jersey came down with flu-like symptoms. One died, after a five-mile forced march.
Examinations of the virus identified it as “swine flu,” normally contracted by people who come into contact with pigs. It was determined to be related to the strain that caused the 1918 flu epidemic which killed 100 million people.
In March 1976, the CDC decided to immunize the entire population to prevent a possible pandemic.
In the months that followed, two things happened that turned public opinion against the vaccine program:
- Three elderly patients died one day after receiving the vaccine in the same clinic in Pittsburgh
- There was a slight increase in the prevalence of cases of Gillian-Barre Syndrome in the population receiving the vaccine
The vaccine program was suspended in December 1976. One-quarter of the populated was vaccinated. The program was never reinstated, and the head of the CDC was replaced.
There are three questions here –
First, did we need to immunize the entire population against a potential “swine flu” pandemic? Most people say no. The World Health Organization, at the time, didn’t sound any alarm, and recollections of the time period generally characterize the push to vaccination as hasty and politically motivated.
Second, did the three elderly patients die because of the vaccine? I could find no evidence of this. An investigation concluded they were not related to the vaccine. The three people were 71, 74, and 75-years-old and all had a history of heart disease.
From a NY Times article at the time (this is from their archives, so it might be paywalled):
Noting that the persons who died were all elderly, Dr. Sencer [head of the CDC at the time] said it could be estimated that among 100.000 people in the 65‐to‐75 age group, there would be nine or ten deaths in any 24‐hour period and that this natural risk of death would be heightened by the existence of heart disease.
It would be seem to be a coincidence – and not a very unlikely one – that three elderly patients with heart disease happened to die on the same day while a vaccination program was happening. I suspect situations like this happened naturally in several places that day, but the incident in Pittsburgh was detected and reported.
Third, did the vaccine increase the odds of Gillian-Barre Syndrome? This one might actually be true. The CDC did concede that there was a link – people receiving the vaccine were four times more likely to come down with GBS. However, those odds were still extremely remote: GBS developed in 362 people out of 45 million in the six weeks post-vaccination. Also of note, GBS has a 95% survival rate and most victims recover fully.
The two big takeaways here are that (1) we probably embarked on a massive vaccination program that was unnecessary, and (2) the media played a huge role in promoting panic about the vaccine and turning public opinion against it.
Was the vaccine harmful? There was a slight statistical link to GBS, yes, but in every vaccination decision, we need to weigh that against the threat of a global pandemic. In this particular instance, the threat may have been overstated, which means the negative impact of the vaccine was avoidable.