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April 28th, 2009
04:04 PM ET

The last great swine flu epidemic

Patrick Di Justo
Salon

There is evidence there will be a major flu epidemic this coming fall. The indication is that we will see a return of the 1918 flu virus that is the most virulent form of the flu. In 1918 a half million Americans died. The projections are that this virus will kill one million Americans in 1976.

- F. David Matthews, secretary of health, education, and welfare (Feb., 1976)

In January 1976, 19-year old U.S. Army Private David Lewis, stationed at Fort Dix, joined his platoon on a 50-mile hike through the New Jersey snow. Lewis didn't have to go; he was suffering from flu and had been confined to his quarters by his unit's medical officer. Thirteen miles into the hike, Lewis collapsed and died a short time later of pneumonia caused by influenza. Because Lewis was young, generally healthy and should not have succumbed to the common flu, his death set off a cascade of uncertainty that confused the scientists, panicked the government and eventually embittered a public made distrustful of authority by Vietnam and Watergate.

This past Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano left open the possibility of a mass immunization program for the current outbreak of swine flu. If that happens, the Obama administration has a lot to learn from the debacle set in motion by Private Lewis' ill-fated hike.

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Filed under: 360º Follow • Public Health
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. sandra stokes

    Dear Andreson,
    I took my ten year old to the Doctor today they did a flu test , they said it was clear. But before we even got home they called us back and said after the test sat for a few moments it showed a postive and had us go back for a second test to send to the CDC. Then put her on tamiflu and told me to keep her home for a week. My question is does she have it?

    sandra, Northport, AL

    April 28, 2009 at 11:15 pm |
  2. Jeneca Lynema

    I thought the last swine flu vaccine killed people so they had to stop giving it?

    April 28, 2009 at 8:03 pm |
  3. Annie Kate

    I remember that swine flu outbreak and the vaccine program that went nowhere. I had two small children at that point and their pediatrician told me not to get the vaccine for them. Not knowing anyone who had the flu and with no large outbreak in my area my family and a lot of others just didn't get the injections – when the flu didn't come like the scientists were afraid it would it was a relief but it made us wonder just how reliable the scientists were. I hope this time goes the same way – a contained outbreak with very little spread.

    April 28, 2009 at 6:30 pm |
  4. Isabel

    Cheers!!! God bless you.

    April 28, 2009 at 5:11 pm |