Oct. 12, 2020 — In 1976, when Army recruits in Fort Dix, NJ, fell ill from a virulent form of influenza, infectious disease doctor William Schaffner, MD, got his first lesson in the perils of pandemic planning. Lab tests revealed a strain genetically similar to the one that triggered the deadly 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Although it hadn’t spread beyond the Army post, the potential was frightening.
Schaffner, then a junior faculty member at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, recalls that his mentor, pediatric virologist David Karzon, MD, traveled to the CDC in Atlanta and came back feeling out of sorts. The CDC presented its plan for mass vaccination, but it seemed more like a showcase than a quest for advice.
President Gerald Ford, who was in the middle of a contested primary campaign against Ronald Reagan, vowed to protect Americans. But months later, when the pandemic never arrived, the vaccination program came to be known as “the swine flu fiasco.” By December 1976, vaccinations came to an abrupt halt. About 45 million Americans had received the “swine flu” vaccine against an H1N1 influenza strain known to circulate in pigs. About 450 of them developed a rare neurological condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome, but its connection to the vaccine is still debated.