Remembering the Swine Flu "Debacle" of 1976 - NBC Bay Area

Remembering the Swine Flu "Debacle" of 1976



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    Swine flu vaccine is available in the United States.

     Zona Cobb  knows what its like to get a swine flu vaccine. The 70 year old got one when she was in her 30s back in 1976. "I got the swine flu vaccine because I had gotten the flu before and didn't want to get it again." said Cobb. She was one of  more than 40 million Americans who were part of mass vaccinations in the United States.

    A panic started when an Army recruit at Ft. Dix New Jersey died from a swine flu virus thought to be similar to the 1918 strain which killed half a million Americans and an estimated 20 million people worldwide.

    Several other soldiers at the base also got sick.  Following that, two cases of the flu strain were reported in Virginia. Mass vaccinations soon got underway and almost 25 percent of the population received the swine flu vaccine.

    However, just days after the first vaccines reports began emerging that the vaccine appeared to increase the risk for Guillain-Barre Syndrome and the government halted the vaccination program after just ten weeks. Guillain-Barre is a rare neurological condition that causes temporary paralysis and can be fatal.  It normally strikes one person in every 100,000.

    The National Institute of Medicine says the 1976 swine flu vaccine was associated with a rate of 2 per 100,000.  The data from that era was not very good and we haven't been able to determine looking at the data if there was an increased risk.

    Guillain-barre is a very rare disease anyway and infrequent so even if there was an increase it was a tiny number of people, according to San Francisco Public Health Officer Dr. Susan Fernyak.

    Government health leaders say the public should consider this new swine flu vaccine safe. " The H1N1 vaccine is being produced exactly the same was as seasonal flu with exactly the same careful oversight. We've gone an additional step and doing extra clinical trials and they have not found any red flags in terms of safety," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

    The Centers for Disease Control has also learned lessons from mistakes made in 1976.  It has established a special system to report serious side effects from the vaccine and is implementing a real time monitoring program involving health plans covering 15 percent of all Americans.

    Zona Cobb says she did not get sick after her vaccine in 1976 and she feels even more confident that the new swine flu vaccine offered today is safe. She plans to get the shot as soon as she can.