In 1976, President Gerald Ford authorized the National Influenza Immunization Program to inoculate every American against an impending swine flu epidemic. But despite government predictions of one million dead, only one confirmed fatality was recorded by the end of the year. In May, Bob spoke with science writer Patrick Di Justo, who recalled the last time the media developed a fever over a mild case of flu.
Artist: J Dilla
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. The last time the words “swine flu” were prevalent in the news, Gerald Ford was in the White House and the United States was gearing up to celebrate its bicentennial.
PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: The threat of swine flu outbreak this year is still very, very genuine. Data from the scientific community clearly supports the need for a full-scale inoculation program.
BOB GARFIELD: In February of 1976, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare F. David Matthews said ominously, quote, “The projections are that this virus will kill one million Americans. That year, President Ford was vaccinated, on television, as part of a media photo-op and through a series of public service announcements urged all Americans to embrace wide scale flu shots.
ANNOUNCER: A swine flu epidemic may be coming.
MAN: I'm the healthiest 55-year-old you ever seen. Hey, I play golf every weekend.
ANNOUNCER: Get a shot of protection, the swine flu shot.
BOB GARFIELD: Science writer Patrick Di Justo, who chronicled the 1976 scare in Salon, says it all began then with Army Private David Lewis. He was stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, set to go on a 50-mile overnight hike with the rest of his platoon, when he came down with the flu. But that didn't stop him.
PATRICK DI JUSTO: He went on the hike and died. Now, normally 19-year-olds don't die when they have the flu, and this set off a huge panic. And they discovered that the flu that he had was swine flu, somewhat similar to the flu that wiped out a good portion of the world in 1918.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, your piece in Salon documented a convergence of a number of factors. One of them was the death of this Army private. Another was politics in the Republican Party, as President Ford tried to get the nomination for a next run at the presidency.
PATRICK DI JUSTO: California Governor Ronald Reagan put up a spirited fight against Ford. It came to a head on March 23rd, 1976, when Reagan won the North Carolina primary. President Ford the very next day gathered together the nation’s top immunologists and held a press conference about how he was going to save the country against the coming plague.
BOB GARFIELD: And if that weren't a fertile enough environment for overreaction, came the deaths of several American Legionnaires in Philadelphia. How did that play in to the panic?
PATRICK DI JUSTO: Between March, when the news about swine flu really reached the public, and August the scientists really started to calm down. They had analyzed the disease that killed Private Lewis a lot better and they realized that it probably was not going to be a 1918-style pandemic. Then, the Legionnaires’ disease happened. Immediately, almost every media outlet covering this saw death! The New York Post’s first headline was “Killer Fever, 21 Dead, 134 Ill.” The very next day: “Two More Deaths. Mortality Rate Hits 22 Percent.” Now, the original Spanish Flu in 1918 had a 2.5 percent mortality rate. Here, they're screaming that the mortality rate of this disease is 10 times higher. A few days later The New York Post calmed down and its headline read, “Killer Fever, It’s Not Flu.”
BOB GARFIELD: Now, your piece goes into some exquisite detail describing the politics in Congress over what happened after the Legionnaires’ disease in an on-again/off-again/on-again national inoculation program. But, to make a long story short, Congress did authorize such a program, and virtually every American was to get an anti-flu vaccine for free. And then what happened?
PATRICK DI JUSTO: The Flu Program started on October 1st. It went well. People were lining up, were getting immunized, as they should. And then, on the night of October 11th, in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, three elderly people died within a few hours of getting their flu shot. Mass media panic, once again.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this turned out to be a classic example of correlation, not necessarily implying causation.
PATRICK DI JUSTO: Exactly.
You describe the media freak-out, but there was one voice of calm and reason, and that was:
PATRICK DI JUSTO: Walter Cronkite. The CDC had pointed out that throughout this immunization campaign, there will be coincidences. Someone who was going to have a heart attack that day will get the flu shot and then have their heart attack, and it'll be almost impossible to stop people from connecting the two. When all this happened, Walter Cronkite came on and gave one of his rare commentaries, where he actually spanked his media colleagues a bit, telling them that this was not the way they should be behaving.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, let's bring this back to 2009. It seems to me that the press itself has been fairly responsible in the coverage, so far. Do you agree?
PATRICK DI JUSTO: Well, not entirely. I mean, I've seen people out there asking — and, and it’s always done in the form of a question — is this the new Black Death?
[BOB LAUGHS] I mean, I've actually heard that.
BOB GARFIELD: All that, and news, weather and sports, after this.
PATRICK DI JUSTO: Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Thank you very much.
PATRICK DI JUSTO: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Patrick Di Justo is a science writer based in New York City.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] We first aired this piece in May of this year.