On a rainy night in January 1976, a batch of new Army recruits training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, were sent on a 5-mile march. The next day, one of the recruits, Private David Lewis, collapsed with severe pneumonia. Lewis died, and a whole swath of his platoon fell ill with chest congestion and fever: almost 200 men, 13 of whom had to be hospitalized. January is within flu season, and military physicians assumed that the flu had somehow made its way onto the base—a problem for the group and a tragedy for the dead soldier, but not unexpected.
Tests upended that thinking. The soldiers did have the flu, but among some of them, at least, the virus that was causing their illness was not the common strain that was circling the globe that year. It was instead an unfamiliar virus to which almost no one had immunity. It was among the strains of flu designated H1N1, and it was genetically related to a flu epidemic that some people in medicine at the time were old enough to still remember: the world-spanning, millions-killing pandemic of 1918.
The discovery of what came to be known as the 1976 swine flu electrified the country. Before the end of that March, President Gerald Ford declared the US would vaccinate "every man, woman, and child" in the United States against it. Congress appropriated emergency funds. Manufacturers rushed to make a new vaccine formula. By Thanksgiving, almost 45 million Americans, a quarter of the population at the time, received the new shot. Ford led the way: He was photographed receiving it in the Oval Office on October 14.
But unlike 1918, this time there was no pandemic. The cases among the soldiers were a spark that did not catch. And by the time that became clear, more than 500 people out of that 45 million had come down with an extremely rare condition, a paralysis called Guillain-Barré syndrome. Thirty-two of them died.
The events of 1976 had a profound effect on the US public health system. Congress held hearings for months. The director of the CDC (then called the Center for Disease Control) was fired. The rush to counter the apparent threat came to be seen as a mistake, and the possibility of a pandemic came to seem so unlikely that it took another 27 years before the federal government drafted a plan to respond to one.
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