Campus News

UGA professors discuss lasting impact of 1976 outbreak, flu vaccine

Brian Allen Drake, a history professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and Glen Nowak, director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication, were quoted in a WSB-TV article about how the rush to create a flu vaccine in the 1970s led to an outbreak.

A swine flu outbreak at Fort Dix, N.J., in 1976 sickened five and killed one soldier. Scientists were concerned that 50-60 million Americans would be infected and began preparing for a pandemic.

“The fear of course, was that what we were going to get was a repeat of the great pandemic of 1918,” explained Drake.

In 1918, about 675,000 Americans died from the Spanish flu and in 1976, national leaders wanted to save lives, Drake said.

“There was an effort to inoculate essentially as many people in the country as possible to prevent that,” he said.

Scientists developed a vaccine in just six months and President Gerald Ford wanted everyone in America to get a flu shot. However, the prediction that 50 million Americans would contract swine flu never came to fruition.

“You just don’t know if that strain is going to be one that’s going to cause a lot of illness, or it’s going to be one where it really doesn’t go beyond one or two people,” Nowak said.

However, 450 of the 45 million people who were vaccinated developed Guillain-Barré syndrome—a disorder that can cause muscle weakness, paralysis or even death.

“It wasn’t picked up in the clinical trials,” Nowak said. “And it wasn’t detected until millions of people were vaccinated because it was a one-in-100,000 event. You needed probably 10, 20, 30 people to experience Guillain-Barré syndrome before the light bulb went off, and you said, ‘Wow, this may really be related to the vaccine.’”

The article also discussed both the lessons learned and the consequences of the 1976 event.