NJ, not Mexico, epicenter of last swine flu outbreak

April 27, 2009 4:47:54 PM PDT
The last time swine flu was causing global concern was 1976.

Just after New Year's on 1976, new trainees at Ft. Dix started falling sick with a respiratory illness. Trainees already on the base started getting sick too. By January 28, a New Jersey Health Department official recognized that the widespread outbreak could be influenza.

Samples from some of the sick showed the A/Victoria-type virus, one of the flu strains in circulation that winter.

But scientists had never seen the others before.

They called it A/New Jersey, and determined it was an H1N1 virus - the same class of virus that triggered the 1918 pandemic. That, too, exploded onto the national scene from military training camps, where conditions are crowded, and infections can spread rapidly.

By February 4, one recruit had died, and others were hospitalized, seriously ill.

By February 13, all 5 of the unknown strains were identified as swine influenza A.

Ft. Dix, the New Jersey Department of Health, Walter Reed Army Institute, and the Centers for Disease Control launched an aggressive program to assess the outbreak, find out what treatments worked, and minimize the chance A/New Jersey would spread.

Outside the confines of Ft. Dix, health officials braced for a pandemic. But the disease never spread beyond the Army installation. Health experts have never figured out why.

The other strain of virus, A/Victoria, did spread, and continued till March 1976.

The month after A/New Jersey was reported, President Gerald Ford called for vaccinations against swine flu for all Americans. And Congress agreed.

But the program turned into a mess. Only about a fifth of the nation's population was immunized. And among those who were, more than 40 died, and hundreds claimed the shots led to paralysis from a rare disorder, Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

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