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What can we learn from the US’ 1976 vaccination programme?

Back in 1976, US president Gerald Ford pressed on a nationwide vaccination programme, inoculating over 50 million US citizens, in an effort to control a potential swine flu outbreak. Fear of endemics rooted deep in American consciousness. In 1918, half a million of Americans died of a devasting pandemic, known as the Spanish flu. Since then, flu outbreaks reappeared in the USA, killing over 70.000 people in 1957-58 and claiming another 34.000 lives in 1968-69. It was believed that the deadly influenza virus would return with steady intervals.

In January 1976, panic struck the country again. During a training exercise on the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey, 18-year-old Private David Lewis suddenly collapsed and died in front of his teammates. According to the clinical autopsy, the unfortunate Lewis succumbed to the swine flu. This alarming news immediately prompted the Ford administration to take action. But the president’s efforts to prevent the outbreak of yet another flu endemic stumbled on public concern. Questions were raised whether or not anti-flu vaccinations would be effective. Even if they were, critics argued, there would not be enough doses of vaccine available to immunise everybody anyway. Besides these public anxieties, Ford faced even more pressing opposition from pharmaceutical companies. These industrialists insisted that they couldn’t carry out the vaccine production, without being legally covered.

Assuming he had no time to lose, president Ford then made a remarkable decision. In April 1976, he asked Congress to approve for $135 million to produce enough vaccines and, consequently, made the government take over the liability of the vaccine producers. If inoculated patients would suffer from unforeseen side effects, it would not be the pharmaceutical companies, but the US government who could be held accountable. With the programme four months on the way, things indeed would take a turn for the worse. 25% of all Americans were already inoculated, when four of them died of Guillain Barré Syndrome. This illness, a dreadful side effect of the anti-flu vaccine, subsequently paralysed another fifty persons. What added to the grief of these victims, was that the feared outbreak of swine flu never appeared, making the suffering of those permanently paralysed rather meaningless.

Eventually, Ford’s attempt to save the country caused him to lose the 1976 elections. His administration next found itself on the wrong side of the courtroom, when families of inoculated victims sued the government. Claims totalled up to $3.2 billion. Even though most lawsuits were dismissed, still the state had to pay out more than $90 million. From this moment on, US policymakers would think twice about rushing into action before a potential flu outbreak.


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