Learning from the 1976 Swine Flu Scare

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Concern surrounding the new H1N1 vaccine remains among Americans, but it's not the first time swine flu fears have brought on debate.

Some 33 years ago, swine flu caused a nationwide panic and may have even helped bring down a presidency.

In February 1976, 20-year-old Army recruit David Lewis died of the swine flu, and several other soldiers got sick. The next month, then President Gerald Ford, issued a dire warning in fear of an outbreak.

"This virus is very similar to 1918," he warned. "Unless we take action [it] could be an epidemic. No one knows how serious this threat is."

In response, a nationwide vaccination was initiated. More than 40 million Americans stood in long lines for their shot even though many in the public and the media questioned it.

As the weeks unfolded, the pandemic Americans had been expecting never happened. The vaccination effort soon became a public relations nightmare for President Ford.

Reports surfaced that the vaccine appeared to increase the risk for Guillain-Barre Syndrome-- a rare disease that causes temporary paralysis and can be deadly.

To prove the shot was safe, the president took the vaccine in the basement of the White House. His opponent in that year's election did not and he wasn't alone.

By the time it was over, the head of the Center for Disease Control was out of a job and there was a public backlash against flu shots.

Officials say there are more measures in place today to monitor side effects of flu vaccines. 

Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius has maintained that the swine flu shot just released is safe.  Parents are especially urged to do away with any fears and have their child vaccinated.

*Original Broadcast Date: October 13, 2009.

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