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The swine flu fiasco

For centuries it has silently stalked us, killing tens of millions of people and evading all the best efforts at a permanent cure. It is influenza, a potentially lethal bug whose unique ability to reinvent itself in deadlier forms has prompted researchers to dub it the "last great virus" facing humanity. CBC Archives explores the deadly history of influenza and looks at what's being done to avoid a new global pandemic.

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In February 1976, a 19-year-old soldier died at Fort Dix, N.J., after coming down with a severe case of influenza dubbed the "swine flu". Fearing a return of the fatal 1918 Spanish flu virus, U.S. authorities launched an unprecedented program to vaccinate every man, woman and child in the country. But after two months and tens of million of dollars, the program was scrapped when reports leaked out about adverse reactions to the shot that ranged from temporary paralysis to death. This CBC Television clip looks at the ill-fated initiative, which was blamed for casting suspicion on vaccination efforts for an entire generation.

U.S. President Gerald Ford's National Influenza Immunization Program began in Oct. 1 1976, with free vaccination clinics in Indianapolis. Canada followed suit days after, even though no cases of the virus had been detected north of the border. 
. On March 24, 1976, President Gerald Ford signed into law the first universal vaccination program in American history. He said the multi-million cost was needed to avoid a return of the virus, which he claimed had caused the 1918 pandemic.
. Following in the footsteps of Ford's announcement, Canadian Health Minister Marc Lalonde said he was contemplating a universal vaccination program. Well-intentioned but poorly executed, the vaccinations were a public health disaster that contributed to Ford's election loss. He was voted out of office in 1977.

. "We cannot afford to take a chance with the health of our nation," Ford said as he approved the massive vaccination program. Ford made his decision after conferring with 35 experts, including Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, the minds behind the successful polio vaccine of the 1960s.
. The reaction within the international health community was not positive. The Toronto Star reported that officials at the World Health Organization in Geneva had "reacted with surprise" at Ford's announcement, saying there was no evidence that the virus was spreading.

. The swine flu panic began in February 1976, after news broke of a young soldier who died in New Jersey. The similarities to the 1918 pandemic, which turned up on a Kansas military base and was spread by First World War soldiers, were too evident for many.
. A front-page story in the New York Times from Feb. 20, began by saying, "The possibility was raised today that the virus that caused the greatest world epidemic of influenza in modern history the pandemic of 1918-19 may have returned."

. That story, along with many others at the time, reported as many as 500 cases of swine flu at Fort Dix and warned of a second more deadly wave in the fall.
. Canada unveiled its universal vaccinations in late October, with the goal of vaccinating nine million Canadians. In total, 50 million people received flu shots across North America.
. In December investigators with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control confirmed that a higher-than-average number of vaccinated people had developed a rare form of paralysis called Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS).

. According to the GBS Foundation International, the syndrome is characterized "by the rapid onset of weakness and, often, paralysis of the legs, arms, breathing muscles and face." GBS is thought to affect one or two people in a 100,000.
. About 500 people who were vaccinated in the U.S. developed GBS, and 25 people died. That was enough for the U.S. government. The CDC ordered the suspension of the flu program on December 16, 1976. Ontario followed suit the day after, with the rest of the provinces cancelling their programs the week after.

. This, combined with a lack of an outbreak of the swine flu sparked widespread criticism. To learn more about the public reaction to the fiasco, go to our additional clip Gambling with the public's health.
. In the wake of the scandal, the director of the CDC in Atlanta and the assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health were fired.
. Those who came down with Guillain-Barré Syndrome as a result of the shots filed a record $3.5 billon US class action suit against the U.S. government in 1978.

. To learn more about the largest public claim in American history, go to our additional clip Swine flu fallout.
. This wouldn't be the first public scare about a flu pandemic. In 1977 a localized outbreak of the Russian flu sparked worldwide alarm, while in 1997 a rash of Avian flu in Hong Kong led to the destruction of millions of chickens and panic in Europe and North America.
Medium: Television
Program: The Journal
Broadcast Date: Feb. 21, 1983
Guest(s): Arthur Silverstein
Host: Peter Kent
Interviewer: Barbara Frum
Duration: 6:14

Last updated: February 3, 2014

Page consulted on February 24, 2015

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