A few months ago, I was reading the exceptional book, ‘The Signal and the Noise‘ by Nate Silver [get a copy of it, it is priceless!]. An incident detailed in the book from American history made me wonder if that could be one of the causes that sowed the seed of doubt about vaccines or strong government interventions among Americans, making them continue to resist it. Especially since the country is among the top in innovation, so we are talking about an intelligent people, not some isolated, small town population in an underdeveloped country, cut-off from world perspective.
In the 1970’s, there was a common belief at that a major flu epidemic struck roughly once in a decade, and by 1976, the world expected one to hit.
In January, 1976 at Fort Dix, David Lewis, a nineteen year old private who had returned from holiday, had the flu – a common occurrence at army bases, thanks to soldiers returning from holiday bringing back some variant of the flu from their hometowns, and into cramped up bases, where it would spread. However, it was almost always the common variants, causing no concern. However, private Lewis, while on a march, collapsed and was later declared dead. The cause was pneumonia.
Hundreds of soldiers suffered from the common A/Victoria flu that year. Blood samples sent to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) showed that some had the more disturbing H1N1, or swine flu; the one responsible for the 1918-20 Spanish flu. Around 200 soldiers at Fort Dix tested positive for swine flu, with private Lewis being the only casualty. While flu season had passed by then, scientists feared that by the next winter, there could be a severe outbreak of a more mutant strain of swine flu.
US President Gerald Ford’s secretary of health, F. David Mathews, estimated a potential death rate of a million. Fighting to repair his public image, President Ford thought that preparing his country for the epidemic would be the perfect way to do it. He rallied Congress to allow a USD 180 million plan to manufacture 200 million doses of vaccine, and ordered a mass vaccination program.
It was winter in the southern hemisphere, but to everyone’s surprise, there were no instances of H1N1. Criticism started to build. No other western country had called for such drastic measures.
Instead of admitting their mistake, the Ford administration went rogue. It created panic-causing public service announcements and telecast them at regular intervals. One TV message showed a healthy fifty-five year old mocking the vaccine, only to shown on his deathbed moments later.
The result was an American public that was fear-struck, by the disease and the vaccine. Under pressure from drug manufacturers, Congress indemnified them from legal liabilities that could arise from manufacturing defects. Vaccine production was rushed, without adequate testing. Compared to government estimates of 80%, polls found that only about 50% Americans intended to get vaccinated.
The vaccination program began in October. Three Pittsburgh citizens died shortly after receiving their shots. Similar news poured in from other cities, causing concern among those who had taken the shot.
By late fall, a bigger problem emerged. 500 of the 50 million vaccinated, began exhibiting symptoms of a rare neurological condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that can cause paralysis. This occurrence among the vaccinated, was ten times its usual incidence in general population (one case per million). Manufacturing defects due to the rushed production seemed a possible cause. The vaccine program ended on December 16th.
Long story short, the outbreak at Fort Dix was an isolated one, with no other H1N1 cases across the country. The government faced USD 2.6 billion in pharma liability claims. Cities and towns saw upright citizens who had contracted Guillain-Barré. Within a couple of years, the number of Americans willing to take flu shots dwindled to about one million.
One cannot say for sure if a horrific experience like this is what might have left Americans so wary of Covid-19 related government assurances and the vaccinations themselves. But it did make me wonder.