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The swine flu of '76

Published November 07. 2009 09:00AM

The year 1976 wasn't the healthiest for my generation.


• In the winter of 1976, the Hong Kong flu struck and cause many people to get sick.

• On July 27, 1976, as many as 221 people took ill and 34 died during an American Legion convention at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia during what became known as "Legionaires Disease."

• Another seasonal flu outbreak, the A-Victorian flu began occurring in the fall of 1976.

• We're saving the best for last. Occurring in 1976 was the spread of "swine flu," an affliction which killed a soldier at Fort Dix, N.J., shut down local schools, and had officials warning that it had similar properties and could be as deadly as the flu epidemic of 1918.

Incidentally, the 1918 epidemic claimed the lives of an estimated 500,000 Americans, including many in the local area. It wasn't called the swine flu. It was known as the "Spanish flu."

When detected in individuals locally, officials would quarantine the home, which would involve placing signs on the dwelling and prohibit visitors.

There's no question the 1918 situation was a disaster. But fortunately, the 1976 swine flu pandemic vanished without such an impact.

The 1976 swine flu became known when on Feb. 5, 1976, an Army recruit mentioned to his drill instructor at Fort Dix that he didn't feel well. Still, he insisted on participating in a training hike.

Pvt. David Lewis of Ashley Falls, Mass, age 19, died within 24 hours.

Within a couple of weeks, it was learned that Lewis died from swine flu and four comrades were hospitalized from it. In addition, tests showed as many as 500 soldiers at Fort Dix had caught the swine flu without falling ill. Pvt. Lewis would be the only individual to die from this strain of the swine flu.

Since the flu spread so quickly, there was obviously major concern. A pandemic was declared and vaccine was made available by late October and President Gerald Ford went on national television to receive his shot, "proving" to the public it was both safe and wise.

Then other developments occurred. Some people who received the swine flu shot got sick, and believed it was from the vaccine. More than 500 people contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, many convinced it came from the shot, and some believe the shot itself claimed 25 lives.

Since 1976, no new cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome have been linked to flu vaccines.

We fast forward to 2009.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Novel influenza A (H1N1) is a new flu virus of swine origin that first caused illness in Mexico and the United States in March and April of this year.

CDC says, "It is thought that H1N1 flu spreads in the same way that regular seasonal influenza viruses spread, mainly through the coughs and sneezes of people who are sick with the virus, but it may also be spread by touching infected objects and then touching your nose or mouth."

The vaccine used in 1976 won't work to treat the new swine flu because there is a slight variance in the two strains.

A new vaccine manufactured by four different firms has been approved and distribution has begun. For the first time, children younger than nine years and older than six months old may need to get two doses of H1N1 vaccine, separated by four weeks.

The CDC says, "The 1976 swine flu virus and the 2009 H1N1 virus are different enough that it's unlikely a person vaccinated in 1976 will have full protection from the 2009 H1N1."

One word of caution if getting the vaccine: People who are allergic to eggs might be at risk for allergic reactions from receiving any influenza vaccine.

This whole flu situation is incomprehensible. Why were there no major outbreaks between 1918 and 1976? How come it is another 33 years before another pandemic occurs? Where was the swine flu hiding all these years?

With the scientific ability we have today, can there really be another epidemic like happened in 1918?

At least Legionaires disease has been controlled.

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