Faulty vaccine distributed in 1976

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. -- The last time swine flu made headlines, the virus itself didn't spread far but the fallout from the health emergency did.

In the frigid winter of 1976, the Army installation in New Jersey was cycling through recruits by the thousands for basic training.

It's believed that one recruit brought the virus into the reception center.

The infection was discovered after Pvt. David Lewis collapsed during a march on Jan. 19 and died a day later.

The official response was swift.

Dr. Richard A. Hodder was working as an epidemiologist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington when he got a call at home one night. He was told to report to work early the next morning, and to bring his toothbrush so he could travel.

Hodder said scientists in 1976 believed the swine flu might return in 50- to 60-year cycles. He and other investigators headed to Fort Dix to test soldiers. Between Jan. 19 and Feb. 9, they found as many as 230 infected soldiers. Thirteen were hospitalized for respiratory illness.

By late February, health officials were warning that the outbreak on the base could be deadly if the disease moved into the general population.

The timing was a concern: New flu viruses tend to show up early in the year, then come back more forcefully the next winter. So that March, President Gerald Ford announced a plan to immunize all 200 million Americans against the influenza strain seen at Fort Dix. But the virus never spread off the base.

Researchers believe that's partly because the soldiers in basic training had contact with only the 49 other members of their platoons and their trainers for a time.

They also believe that a more common strain of seasonal flu virus that was prevalent that winter dominated the swine flu strain.

"The swine flu strain had to compete with the A/Victoria strain for its victims," said Franklin Top, another scientist at Walter Reed who responded to the outbreak and now a vice president of Medimmune Ventures, a subsidiary of AstraZeneca. "Not very successfully."

The vaccinations began in October 1976. But reports of people dying within days of being vaccinated brought the program to a halt within weeks. The vaccine was later blamed for causing more than 400 cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disease that causes paralysis.

About 43 million doses of the vaccine were given before the efforts ended in what one New York Times op-ed writer later called "a fiasco, a debacle, a ghastly mistake, a medical Vietnam."