published Thursday, May 7th, 2009

It’s swine flu deja vu


by Emily Bregel

For many baby boomers, the current swine flu scare is a reminder of a 1976 outbreak.

“I just remember there was a lot of hoopla, and it didn’t really seem to come to fruition,” said Rossville resident Gary Paul, 53. In 1976, he was a 21-year-old Navy sailor when he heard word of the outbreak of influenza that some feared would become a pandemic.

In the 1970s an outbreak of swine flu among recruits at Fort Dix in New Jersey led to a broad effort to vaccinate the American public for the illness, suspected to be directly related to the virus that caused the deadly 1918 worldwide pandemic flu, according to an article published in Emerging Infectious Disease, the monthly journal of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 40 million Americans were vaccinated, the article said.

Mr. Paul recalled that he and his fellow sailors were required to get vaccinated.

“They had us get the shots when we picked up our paychecks. If you wanted your check, you had to get the shot,” he said.

The decision to launch the $137 million vaccination program became a source of criticism of the CDC: Despite the person-to-person spread of swine flu among hundreds of recruits, the swine flu did not spread widely to other groups, according to the Emerging Infectious Disease article.

Adding to the criticism, some cases of a rare neurological condition appeared to be related to the swine flu vaccination, resulting in the swift halt of the vaccination program. The ordeal resulted in the dismissal of the CDC’s director and millions paid in damages to those who came down with the condition, which results in paralysis and sometimes can be fatal.

Dr. Peter Rawlings, primary care physician in Chattanooga, was a 24-year-old medical student in 1976, and he received the vaccination for swine flu. He and his peers had not experienced a pandemic scare before, he said.

“It was something totally foreign to us,” he said. If the flu had turned into a true pandemic, “it would have been a truly horrible event. But it kind of petered out.”

Dr. Rawlings said he’s been surprised that the current swine flu outbreak is continuing.

“My thought was this is gonna burn itself out pretty quickly, but it just keeps smoldering along,” he said.

about Emily Bregel...

Health care reporter Emily Bregel has worked at the Chattanooga Times Free Press since July 2006. She previously covered banking and wrote for the Life section. Emily, a native of Baltimore, Md., earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Columbia University. She received a first-place award for feature writing from the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ Golden Press Card Contest for a 2009 article about a boy with a congenital heart defect. She ...

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