Flu Not as Contagious as Fear

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, May 3, 2009

Swine flu is in the air, but the bug to watch out for is the germ of fear.

The school year was coming to a close, and federal health officials, having convinced the president that swine flu was likely to infect huge numbers of people in just a few months, were racing to make a good vaccine for children.

So in May of 1976, doctors at Children's National Medical Center turned to kids they knew best. The president of the hospital's board had his kids at Beauvoir, the private elementary school on the grounds of the National Cathedral. The principal, Frances Borders, agreed to have her students participate.

Twenty-four Beauvoir students were inoculated, along with 50 children of hospital employees and 43 kids enrolled in the hospital's comprehensive care program.

Lorin Spangler Young was one of the Beauvoir kids who got the shot. She was 6. I found her last week in Fort Collins, Colo., where she teaches in an elementary school. Young remembers talking to her mother about whether to get the shot: "She gave me the option, and I chose to do it." She recalls going to school that day: "I stifled the tears and walked into the library." She remembers the shot itself: It hurt.

But she had no idea that she had participated in an experiment until I told her. "I thought it was a regular influenza shot," she says. She says her mother doesn't recall that fact, either.

The families that participated in the test likely knew nothing about the debate among doctors over whether children needed to be inoculated, especially since early evidence was that that year's strain of swine flu had only a minor effect on kids.

The permission form parents signed noted the possibility that the vaccine could cause an allergic reaction, but there was no mention of paralysis. Seven months after the experiment, the District hurriedly closed its vaccine centers and federal authorities began investigating links between the vaccine and Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes paralysis.

Twelve Americans who got the swine flu vaccine died of Guillain-Barré; more than 400 were at least temporarily paralyzed. The government was left with a stockpile of 63 million doses of vaccine.

There's no record of any Beauvoir children suffering lasting ill effects from the experiment, but over time, Young has generally become wary of "taking steps that are not medically proven. It's very much up to the consumer to research what's really going on," she says.

Even when we know we're overreacting, we seem unable to halt the panic. We ride a pendulum that swings from too much reaction to too little. The debacle in 1976 spread enough cynicism about flu shots that millions of Americans shied away from the vaccinations for years thereafter, even when vaccines were safe and effective.

This time, the huge, post-9/11 investment in emergency preparedness has made us especially susceptible to scare stories, and to a false optimism that we're ready to handle whatever comes.

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