Fear of swine flu is so great that Denver parents are eager to have their kids be guinea pigs for the swine flu vaccine. I hope it goes well. Just thinking about the last great swine flu scare, when a hurried campaign resulted in first fear of mass death by flu, then fear of mass death by vaccine.
“On Oct. 1, 1976, the (swine flu immunization program began. By Oct. 11, approximately 40 million people had received swine flu immunizations, mostly through the new compressed air vaccination guns. That evening, in Pittsburgh, came the first blow to the immunization program: Three senior citizens died soon after receiving their swine flu shots. The media outcry, linking the deaths to the immunizations without any proof, was so loud it drew an on-air rebuke from CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, who warned his colleagues of the dangers of post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore, because of this”) thinking. But it was too late. The government had long feared mass panic about swine flu — now they feared mass panic about the swine flu vaccinations.
The deaths in Pittsburgh, though proved not to be related to the vaccine, were a strong setback to the program. The death blow came a few weeks later when reports appeared of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a paralyzing neuromuscular disorder, among some people who had received swine flu immunizations. The public refused to trust a government-operated health program that killed old people and crippled young people; as a result, less than 33 percent of the population had been immunized by the end of 1976. The National Influenza Immunization Program was effectively halted on Dec. 16.
But in Colorado, a Denver doc is beginning a trial this week for Novartis, one of several drug manufacturers racing to make a vaccine for the H1N1 virus. The physician thinks he will find enough children — 100, ages 3 to 8 — for the study within a few days, given that many parents are eager to have their children protected from the virus. Because the vaccine was developed in the same way as the seasonal flu shot, medical experts foresee no problems.
As it turned out in 1976, the original case of swine flu wasn’t nearly as virulent as first thought, and the whole darn thing was an overreaction. Back then, they warned it would kill 1 million Americans. Today, the warning is that it could kills 30 million to 90 million Americans. But let’s be calm. And be careful of our children.