The Way It Was – 1976 – Swine Flu Vaccinations

Photograph courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library , Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs , Wayne State University

1976 Few things instill as much fear as the spread of a serious virus. The Spanish Influenza of 1918-19, for instance, claimed a half-million American lives and 50 million across the globe. The Asian flu of 1957-58 and the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69 each killed more than 1 million worldwide. Those pandemics were undoubtedly paramount in the minds of health officials in 1976 when the threat of swine flu hung ominously over the country. That year, a young recruit at Fort Dix in New Jersey died from what was believed to be swine flu. Several other soldiers there also became sick. When officials at the Centers for Disease Control — now called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — got wind of the news, they sprang into action, urging mass vaccinations. President Gerald R. Ford threw his support behind the drive. Emotional commercials from 1976, which can be seen on YouTube, reveal the scare tactics the government used to get Americans vaccinated. The shots began on Oct. 1, with people lining up at schools, clinics, and shopping malls. In this photo, Wayne County residents wait their turn at Westland Mall. However, the vaccine came with a hidden — and even deadly — threat. By mid-December, 54 cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a paralyzing neuromuscular disease, were reported as a result of the vaccine. Eventually, that number swelled to about 500, and 25 of those died. The shots were abruptly halted, but only after roughly 45 million Americans were immunized. What’s more, the “pandemic” anticipated by officials never materialized. It’s believed that only about 200 Americans contracted that particular strain. Today, that hasty vaccination program is often referred to as the swine flu “fiasco,” which is addressed in the 1978 book The Swine Flu Affair: Decision-Making on a Slippery Disease.