Swine Flu, Round 1
This isn’t the first time Americans have been urged to roll up their sleeves and take a shot of protection against swine flu. In 1976, at the recommendation of the director of the CDC, the federal government set out on a controversial course to vaccinate the entire US population against the H1N1 influenza virus. In 10 weeks 45 million doses of vaccine were administered. The program was suspended after a number of cases of Guillian-Barré syndrome were discovered in people who had received the vaccine.
In 1976, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright was a young reporter assigned to cover one of the early cases of swine flu. As in the 1918 influenza pandemic, the first documented outbreak in 1976 took place on a military base, Fort Dix, in New Jersey. There had been two earlier cases of swine flu infection, one in 1974 and one the following year—both were isolated cases and involved humans who’d had close contact with pigs. The sickness at Fort Dix was particularly alarming to health authorities because, as a CDC report later noted, “Surveillance activities at Fort Dix gave no indication that recruits had contact with pigs.”
David Lewis was a young Army private stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Shortly before a training hike, on a cold February morning in 1976, he told his drill instructor that he was feeling weak, but not sick enough to skip the exercise. Within twenty-four hours, this vigorous young man was dead of a disease that health officials later determined was "swine flu.”
The nation went into panic. The last time this particular influenza made its appearance was 1918, when it killed more people than World War I. Health officials raced to create a vaccine before the fall flu season. And I got an assignment from a magazine to write about the disease and the response to it.
The main question facing health officials was whether this was actually a human disease. Yes, Lewis died of it, and several other soldiers were hospitalized. But was it really being transmitted from one to another, or could it possibly have been contracted from another source—for instance, a pig?
Lewis was not a farm boy. He lived in upstate New York. I spoke to his mother, who happened to be a nurse, and she informed me that Lewis actually had an encounter with a pig a couple months before. One night, while Lewis was on leave over the Christmas holidays, he and his fiancée were driving home from a party. It had been snowing heavily, and the roads were narrowed down to a single lane through the high snow banks. Suddenly, a large pig appeared in the road, blocking their way. Lewis got out of the car and tried to move it aside. Finally, he grabbed the pig by its ears and pulled it aside. Was it possible that the pig was sick, and in that perhaps fatal moment the animal coughed in Lewis's face?
I located the fiancée, a sweet young woman who had planned to go into the mission fields with Lewis when he got out of the service. Together we retraced their steps that snowy winter evening, going from farm to farm and asking people if they recalled a pig in the road around New Year's Eve. Actually, several of them did. Finally one man told us who owned the pig, and we went directly to his house.
The owner was a disabled railroad employee who had lost an arm and a leg in an accident. He was propped against the refrigerator when we came into his house. I explained the situation. I said that millions of Americans were going to have to get inoculated with a vaccine that had scarcely been tested. Who knew what health consequences there would be, to say nothing of the massive cost involved. He was, believe me, not happy when I told him what I wanted: a vial of his pig's blood to take to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. That way, scientists could determine if the animal had antibodies for the flu and might have been the vector through which Lewis contracted the disease.
This pig, a house pet as it turned out, was obviously very dear to its owner. He turned to Lewis's lovely, grief-stricken fiancée and told her, "I know who you are, I know where you live. You f*** with my pig and I'll burn your house down."
We eventually persuaded him to let his vet draw the blood and send it to CDC. As it turned out, the pig had never been sick a day in his life.
Lawrence Wright's website is http://www.lawrencewright.com/