By Kimberly Kindy - Washington Post Staff Writer May 8, 2009 (1356 words)


(Staff Writer Ceci Connolly and News Researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report)

As U.S. health officials consider rolling out a plan to inoculate the nation against swine flu in the next several months, they are haunted by the events that unfolded the last time the government stepped in to head off a surprise flu outbreak.

In the fall of 1976, dozens of Americans died within 48 hours of receiving a swine flu vaccine. To allay the public fears that threatened to unravel the mass inoculation program, President Gerald Ford rolled up his shirtsleeve and received his shot in front of the television cameras.

More than 40 million others followed his lead. But two months later, the campaign was abruptly stopped: More deaths had followed and hundreds were reporting serious side effects, including paralysis.

Already, medical experts and vaccine watchdog groups are urging the Obama administration to apply the lessons learned 33 years ago. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt wrote this week, recommending that officials study the federal investigation of the 1976 program. Administration officials say they are keenly aware of the history.

"We're all reviewing the process that took place in 1976 to understand the lessons learned," said Richard Besser, acting director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We may, as a nation, be faced with a similar decision' about how to address a flu pandemic.

If there was a single factor behind the debacle three decades ago, it was the speed of the decision making, fueled by a political climate in which dissenters were chastised and punished, government records show.

"They moved too quickly. Mistakes were made," said Dr. Harvey Feinberg, director of the Institute of Medicine, who investigated the scandal for the federal government. "People had vivid memories of the 1918 flu epidemic; of young people dropped dead (actually, young, experimentally-vaccinated-upon military recruits – GGK) dropping dead. It colored everything."

Production and field-testing of the vaccine was rushed. Among other problems, the single-shot doses that were produced did not work on children. Vaccine production was shut down by the time the error was caught, and it was too late to produce second doses.

"The first thing we learned is this must be done in a step-by-step fashion. There are points along the way that you need to build in where people can say 'yes' or "no'" to allow for adjustments, said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "In 1976, it was like a choo-choo train."

The atmosphere was vastly different than it is today.


The Fast-Tracked Swine Flu Affair: Decision-Making on a Slippery Disease

Congressional inquiries at the time and Feinberg's report, which was called "The Swine Flu Affair: Decision-Making on a Slippery Disease," found that the process was fast-tracked largely by David Sencer, then director of the CDC, who lost his job over the debacle. Feinberg's report described Sencer as a "wily autocrat" who managed, with little evidence that a pandemic would ensue, to steamroll the president into announcing a national campaign.

Sencer had many defenders, and in an interview this week he stood by his decision, saying, "If there had been swine flu, we would have had deaths in the thousands. Given the state of knowledge of influenza at the time, I think we made the right decision."

Records show that Sencer wrote a March 18, 1976 memo -- signed by former Assistant Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Theodore Cooper -- that outlined four possible government responses. The memo recommended one of those responses, a mass inoculation campaign, emphasizing the political fallout if a pandemic struck. "A decision must be made now," the memo said.

The memo, a government official said during the later investigation, was "a gun to our head."

Within two weeks, Sencer had recruited Jonas Salk, acclaimed for his development of the first polio vaccine, who encouraged President Ford in a private meeting to endorse Sencer's plan to immunize every American as soon as possible. Hours later, Ford announced the decision to the nation with Salk at his side.

Sencer wrote his memo just weeks after health officials had identified the swine flu strain at Fort Dix, an Army training center in New Jersey. It was largely contained there, and within months -- before the first shot was given -- it was thought by most medical officials to no longer be a pandemic threat.

"It didn't matter," said Dr. Richard P. Wenzel, chairman of internal medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, who identified the strain in some of the first victims in 1976. "The die was cast. This was a different era."

The production of the vaccine was also fast-tracked. And when hundreds of Americans began developing Guillain-Barre Syndrome, the neurological disorder that can cause paralysis, experts blamed the speedy development.

Federal health officials say they have been more deliberate in their decision-making this time around.

Dr. Robin Robinson, a director at the Department of Health and Human Services who oversees pandemic responses, said that even as officials take steps to develop a swine flu vaccine with sufficient doses for every "man, woman and child," those plans would be dialed back if the pandemic "fizzles out."

But watchdog groups fear a repeat, particularly because laws passed after the terrorist and anthrax attacks of 2001 allow for accelerated production and field tests of a vaccine when an emergency is declared. On April 26, the Obama administration declared the spread of swine flu a public health emergency.

"We don't want them unnecessarily speeding up field tests," said Barbara Low Fisher, president of the non-profit National Vaccine Information Center, which frequently criticizes vaccine policy. "There are many reasons to be concerned if they take this path."

Federal Drug Administration spokeswoman Mary Long said it was too early to say whether a vaccine would be developed on an accelerated timetable, "but there is flexibility" to do so, given the public emergency declaration.

Even if the production is not accelerated, Wenzel and others say decisions about vaccine production, distribution and risks need to be clearly spelled out to the public.

"Talk to Americans like you are sitting with them at the kitchen table," he said. "Disclose the risks."

Warren Cikins, a Fairfax County resident who believes his life was dramatically altered by the last swine flu scare, gives the same advice.

Just three weeks after receiving his shot 33 years ago, Cikins suffered his first in a series of autoimmune disorders, temporary blindness in his right eye, which lasted for a year. That was followed by permanent back problems, along with colitis, he said.

Cikins, a former county supervisor, believes his ailments were related to the shots, although he was never able to prove that.

This time around, Cikins said, the government should disclose the risks of getting vaccinated balanced against those of getting the flu.

"I am angry," he said. "They knew a certain percentage of us would suffer serious repercussions, and they withheld this from us. They need to let people make an informed decision."

The federal government ultimately reached court settlements with hundreds of victims who said the 1976 vaccine caused neurological problems. In its final reckoning, the government counted 25 deaths associated with the shots.

In the medical community, however, there is some disagreement about the rate of adverse reactions. Wenzel said neurological disorders showed up at a rate seven times higher than with regular flu vaccines.

But Dr. Michael Hattwick, a former CDC official who tracked and analyzed the adverse conditions in 1976, said that one in every 100,000 people developed a neurological disorder from the vaccine, a rate he believes would be similar with other vaccines if they were tracked as carefully.

The risks were disclosed in the fine print of a two-page consent form at the time, although the rate of potential risk was not known, he said.

"There are a lot of unknowns, but I believe you'd find the same rate with any flu shot," Hattwick said. Still, he said, "people should be told."



Then be certain to view the important 60 Minutes CBS-TV segment about the 1976 Flu Shot Fiasco with one of the “last of the truly investigative journalists” that are no longer allowed on Main Stream television, Mike Wallace. Here is the piece:


Then read the following excerpt from a typical, peer-reviewed article from a typical, corporate-controlled medical journal, in this case the once-prestigious, once independent from the influences of Big Pharma Corporations, the New England Journal of Medicine:



A Typical Example of Big Pharma-controlled Medical Journal Bias, Especially in Regards to the Average Journal’s Standard Pro-Vaccine (and Pro-Any Drug) Propaganda (564 words)


SPECIAL New England Journal of Medicine ARTICLE (From 2009)

N Engl J Med 2009; 360:1981-198


Vaccine Refusal, Mandatory Immunization, and the Risks of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases – May 7, 2009


List of authors:

Saad B. Omer, M.B., B.S., Ph.D., M.P.H., Daniel A. Salmon, Ph.D., M.P.H., Walter A. Orenstein, M.D., M. Patricia deHart, Sc.D., and Neal Halsey, M.D.

Conflicts of Interest:

  • Dr. Salmon serves on the Merck Vaccine Policy Advisory Board;
  • Dr Orenstein received research funds from Novartis, Merck, and Sanofi Pasteur and a training grant from the Merck Foundation and served on data and safety monitoring boards associated with GlaxoSmithKline and Encorium;
  • Dr. Halsey received research funds from Wyeth and Berna, lecture fees from Sanofi, and payments for testimony to the Department of Justice regarding several vaccine compensation cases and served on data and safety monitoring committees associated with Novartis and Merck.


Vaccines are among the most effective prevention tools available to clinicians. However, the success of an immunization program depends on high rates of acceptance and coverage. There is evidence of an increase in vaccine refusal in the United States and of geographic clustering of refusals that results in outbreaks. Children with exemptions from school immunization requirements (a measure of vaccine refusal) are at increased risk for measles and pertussis and can infect others who are too young to be vaccinated, cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, or were vaccinated but did not have a sufficient immunologic response. Clinicians can play a crucial role in parental decision making. Health care providers are cited as the most frequent source of immunization information by parents, including parents of unvaccinated children. Although some clinicians have discontinued or have considered discontinuing their provider relationship with patients who refuse vaccines, the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Bioethics advises against this and recommends that clinicians address vaccine refusal by respectfully listening to parental concerns and discussing the risks of non-vaccination.



Vaccine refusal not only increases the individual risk of disease but also increases the risk for the whole community. As a result of substantial gains in reducing vaccine-preventable diseases, the memory of several infectious diseases has faded from the public consciousness and the risk–benefit calculus seems to have shifted in favor of the perceived risks of vaccination in some parents' minds. Major reasons for vaccine refusal in the United States are parental perceptions and concerns about vaccine safety and a low level of concern about the risk of many vaccine-preventable diseases. If the enormous benefits to society from vaccination are to be maintained, increased efforts will be needed to educate the public about those benefits and to increase public confidence in the systems we use to monitor and ensure vaccine safety. Since clinicians have an influence on parental decision making, it is important that they understand the benefits and risks of vaccines and anticipate questions that parents may have about safety. There are a number of sources of information on vaccines that should be useful to both clinicians and parents (e.g., Appendix 1 in the fifth edition of Vaccines, edited by Plotkin et al.; the list of Web sites on vaccine safety posted on the World Health Organization's Web site; and the Web site of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases).