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1976 Swine Flu Vaccine Roll-Out May Provide Lessons For COVID-19 Vaccination Efforts

(KPIX 5) -- The federal government is rolling out its plan for a coronavirus vaccination program, an effort that's not expected to be complete until late 2021. This is something the United States tried not that long ago and haste created a number of problems. From that case, there is a lesson in being patient, and getting it right.

"I'm in an age group that puts me at high risk," said infectious disease expert Dr. James Tillotson. "So I'm a vaccine taker."

Now retired on the Mendocino coast, Tillotson recalled when H1N1, or the Swine Flu, broke out at Fort Dix, New Jersey in 1976. More than 200 soldiers were infected and one died. Fearing a nationwide pandemic, President Gerald Ford announced a sweeping response.

"We're offering an opportunity for every American to get inoculated," Ford announced in March, just a month after the virus was discovered.

"As with anything, you need some caution in terms of developing any kind of medicine for people," Tillotson said. "And that caution was sort of thrown to the wind."

The vaccine was produced and injected into 25 percent of Americans in just 10 months. By the Fall, reports of side effects started coming in from around the country, just as it became evident that the virus never escaped Fort Dix.

"We had a vaccine that had some side effects that were serious," said Tillotson. "And at that point in time completely unnecessary."

By early 1977 the program was suspended and on its way to being shut down. Now, the entire episode is pointed to as one of the seeds of the modern anti-vaccination movement.

"You could point to it, sure," Tillotson says. "But people that are anti-vaccines will point to anything, unfortunately."

Tillotson says 1976 is more a lesson in patient science, something the world needs again today.

"We need a vaccine, no doubt about that," Tillotson explained. "We need a vaccine that is safe and effective."


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