'76: Bell Bottoms, Legionnaire's Disease, Swine Flu

The last time U.S. officials faced a swine flu scare was in 1976. That's when a soldier died at the Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey, and many more became ill. In his book Vaccine, Arthur Allen discusses the response to the government's fear that it would become a nationwide epidemic.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The last time U.S. officials faced a swine flu scare was in 1976. That's when a soldier died at the Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey. Many more fell ill, and the government feared a nationwide epidemic.

Arthur Allen wrote about the response in his book, "Vaccine."

Mr. ARTHUR ALLEN (Author, "Vaccine"): So the government went into a kind of a crisis mode, and within a few months President Ford, who was in the middle of a reelection campaign, asked Congress to authorize a vaccine for everyone in the country. And then we had the outbreak of Legionnaires disease, this mysterious outbreak at a meeting of Legionnaires in Philadelphia at which several people died.

The CDC rather quickly discovered that it was a bacteria that had nothing to do with swine flu, but it fed this panic over swine flu and Congress caved in and 40 million Americans were vaccinated.

MONTAGNE: Of course, so you suddenly have 40 million Americans vaccinated and that need not turned out so badly, but what in fact did happen here?

Mr. ALLEN: Right, in general, vaccines are very safe, but a number of people believed that they had contracted Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which is a nerve disorder that's somewhat similar to polio. It's likely that many of these cases did in fact come from a sort of an allergic reaction to the vaccine, and the government ended up paying out $100 million in compensation to these people. It ended up that the vaccine did more harm than the virus, which never spread beyond the base.

MONTAGNE: Well, from that experience, and other cases in recent years, what did health officials learned?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, there were a couple of things learned. One actually is the need to set up a vaccine compensation program that protects manufacturers from lawsuits. Vaccines generally don't make vaccine makers a lot of money. So to keep vaccines makers in the business, the government sort of took over liability for this. There's now a vaccine compensation program that also pays out money to the families of children who are injured by vaccines.

There's another lesson to be learned from this episode, which is just that you need to move, you know, slowly and with all deliberation before you start suggesting that millions of people be vaccinated against a disease.

MONTAGNE: Well, what about now? Is there any way to know at this exact juncture whether it's best to wait or move forward with some sort of huge vaccine response?

Mr. ALLEN: I think we have a couple of months to make that decision. My understanding is that right now CDC and FDA and probably others are trying to grow sort of a reference strain of this virus and then the manufacturers will have the virus strain that they'll use for the vaccine by mid-May and then they would be ready to sort of pull the trigger and start making vaccine in mid-June.

And we might have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars because things look like we're going to need it, and then in September when it starts to be ready, we might decide we don't want to use it.

And the people that I've talked to about this are pretty clear about the decision to make the vaccine isn't the same as the decision to start a mass vaccination campaign. And I think that's different from 1976 and that was a lesson that we learned from that.

MONTAGNE: Arthur Allen is author of "Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver." Thanks for joining us.

Mr. ALLEN: Thank you for having me.

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