1976 swine flu scare created blacklash

April 27, 2009 at 7:55 AM
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LOS ANGELES, April 27 (UPI) -- Overblown fears of a U.S. swine flu pandemic in 1976 resulted in an enduring public backlash against mass vaccinations, historians say.

Ten weeks after starting an unprecedented vaccination campaign against a feared pandemic, the effort was called off after cases of a rare side effect materialized but the pandemic never did, resulting in an embarrassing debacle, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday.

Experts said the program was driven by mistaken fears that the 1976 swine flu outbreak was similar to the 1918-19 flu pandemic, which killed 500,000 Americans and as many as 50 million people worldwide. Recent research indicates the earlier outbreak was a form of avian, rather than swine, flu.

More than 40 million Americans waited in long lines for the vaccinations, but about 500 people are believed to have developed Guillain-Barre syndrome after receiving the vaccine and the pandemic threat was not borne out. It left lingering doubts about government's abilities to deal with epidemics, the Times said.

"Hopefully, there will be a lot of good, honest public health discussion about what happened in 1976," said Dr. Richard Wenzel of Virginia Commonwealth University, who diagnosed some of the early cases in 1976.

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