25. The Swine Flu Snafu

On February 4, 1976, the swine flu scare began when state health authorities, conducting a routine check on a flu outbreak at the Fort Dix, New Jersey, Army base, found they could not identify the virus in some of the blood samples taken from the sick soldiers. Shortly thereafter, a barrage of conflicting information about swine flu and the mass immunization program was launched in the mass media. Early strong support for the immunization program from the administration and health authorities led to a number of people being inoculated. The widely publicized deaths of some of them, along with contradictory reports by other health authorities, led much of the nation to turn away from the inoculations. One outspoken critic of the flu program was J. Anthony Morris, a microbiologist with the Food and Drug Administration and a longtime critic of flu vaccines. He predicted that inoculation might result in hypersensitivity and trigger neurologic illnesses ranging from persistent headaches to encephalitis to paralysis to Guillain-Barre and to death. He was fired from the FDA by Commissioner Alexander Schmidt for "insubordination." Speculation was offered as to whether there was such a disease; whether it represented a grave threat to life, and whether or not the remedy was a greater danger than the illness. One group which was not confused by the conflicting information was the insurance companies who refused coverage to the four manufacturers of the swine flu serum. Federal Insurance Company, principal underwriter for the drug companies, explained to Business Insurance in May, 1976, that it was not convinced that there has been time enough to test the vaccine for side effects. Unfortunately for those who died or suffered paralysis following swine flu inoculations, the media message was not as clear. The swine flu snafu story is being nominated as a "censored" story of 1976 not because it did not receive enough media coverage, but because it received so much conflicting and inadequately-researched coverage, that the public was in the end left uninformed.

SOURCES: (In addition to the following examples of contradictory media coverage, there was countless coverage of the swine flu problem in magazines and newspapers, and on radio and television.)

Time, April 26, 1976: "Flap Over Swine Flu."
Business Insurance, May 1976.
New Times, June 11, 1976: "Sweating Out the Swine Flu Scare."
Newsweek, July 12, 1976: "Swine Flu Snafu."
Time, December 27, 1976: "Roll Down Your Sleeves .. "
U.S. News & World Report, December 27, 1976: "End of Road for the Swine Flu Program."
Parade, March 13, 1977: "Scientist J. Anthony Morris -- He Fought The Flu Shots and the U.S. Fired Him."