The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Says Wait and See

By Heinrichs, Allison M | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 28, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Says Wait and See


Heinrichs, Allison M, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


As public health officials prepare for a new strain of flu that originated in pigs, they're taking lessons from a public health crisis three decades old.

Swine flu struck Fort Dix, N.J., in January 1976, killing an Army recruit and seriously sickening 13 more. In the ensuing nine months, the federal government responded with a huge vaccination program to calm an edgy public.

Unfortunately, the vaccine harmed more people than the flu.

"The problem was, the outbreak was already over when the decision was made to vaccinate," said Dr. Don Burke, dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, who researched the outbreak. "So this is, in some ways, a cautionary tale to make sure the response is proportionate to the risk."

The immunization of 40 million Americans ordered by then- President Gerald Ford resulted in 532 cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause paralysis and death. Only 230 people were diagnosed with swine flu, and all cases were confined to Fort Dix, Burke said.

The Army recruit who contracted the illness died, the only fatality caused by the virus. And the controversy over the Guillain- Barre syndrome cost the top U.S. health official his job.

A strain of swine flu is believed to have sickened 1,900 people and killed 149 in Mexico. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 40 cases in the United States in New York, California, Texas, Kansas and Ohio. So far, there are no known U.S. deaths.

By comparison, the CDC confirmed almost 26,000 cases of influenza this past season. For every confirmed case, hundreds go unreported, experts say.

To prepare for a swine flu epidemic, the CDC is readying a "seed stock" of the swine flu virus, the first step in making a vaccine, said Dr. Richard Besser, the CDC's acting director. But it will not be ready for use until October, when it could be incorporated into the nation's annual flu season vaccination.

The process of developing flu vaccine typically takes almost a year.

The wait-and-see approach is a good idea, said Dr. Jim Lando, public health physician with the Allegheny County Health Department.

"At this point, there's a lot we don't know about this new strain of swine flu. …

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