The Swine Flu may be new to the headlines in the last week, but it's nothing new. I wasn't aware that we'd already had a major swine flu scare in this country in 1976 until I saw an old Public Service Announcement from back in the day. We ran a story about it in our newscast this morning. (Yes, I "watch" the news right along with you, as we read it on the air. Sometimes there are stories Chris reads that I've never seen before, which was the case with this one today.)
This is the 1976 Public service announcement on YouTube about getting your "Swine Flu shot." A recruit at Fort Dix died of the Swine Flu and it appeared the disease was spreading. The LA Times story I found on this seems to offer a cautionary tale about the U.S. should handle the current crisis: one person died from the flu, but 25 died from the vaccine:
...within days reports emerged that the vaccine appeared to increase the risk for Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological condition that causes temporary paralysis but can be fatal.
Waiting in long lines at schools and clinics, more than 40 million Americans -- almost 25 percent of the population -- received the swine flu vaccine before the program was halted in December after 10 weeks.
More than 500 people are thought to have developed Guillain-Barre syndrome after receiving the vaccine; 25 died. No one completely understands the causes of Guillain-Barre, but the condition can develop after a bout with infection or following surgery or vaccination. The federal government paid millions in damages to people or their families.
However, the pandemic, which some experts estimated at the time could infect 50 million to 60 million Americans, never unfolded. Only about 200 cases of swine flu and one death were ultimately reported in the U.S., the CDC said.
So maybe the advice to stay calm and just take obvious precautions really is the best advice. Panic is never a good idea, but it's so understandable when there is context. Take, for example, the 747 buzzing the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan yesterday.
When I read the story online, it wasn't explained... just that a jumbo jet was flying too low, and people were evacuating their buildings and running in chaos away from where the plane appeared to be headed. This video from the story on our website is a good example of that -- against the backdrop of 911, you should expect people to freak out when a giant plane buzzes the city.
Turns out it was one of the President's planes, known as Air Force One (but only when he's on board. He wasn't yesterday. In fact, White House sources that the President was "furious" when he found out about this).
The Pentagon had notified New York authorities that there was going to be a fly-over, to update the Presidential jet's stock file footage. But the message never got to the Mayor's office, much less the general public. Our story on nbcla.com says:
"Everybody panicked," said Daisy Cooper, a Merrill Lynch worker in Jersey City, who lost a nephew on 9/11. "Everybody was screaming and we all ran downstairs. I'm devastated...Everybody was running, we didn't know why we were running. We just knew it was a plane, there we go, 9/11 again."
So it makes sense that in the 1970s, there were enough people in government who remembered the 1918 flu pandemic from their childhoods and wanted to react quickly and decisively. The so-called "Spanish flu" killed millions, and lasted for two years and two months, according to stories I found online:
The Spanish flu, from March 1918 to June 1920, was caused by the Influenza A strain of subtype H1N1, and swept across the world, reaching the Arctic and Pacific Islands and claiming between 20 million and 100 million lives.
The death toll was more than double that of World War 1.
And an old newsreel you see here posted on YouTube of the end of the "Great War" celebration makes reference to the flu masks people were wearing.
It also ends on this note:
They've swept a victory in the war to end war. And so San Francisco celebrates in 1918, because the war is over.
And there'll never be another."
That war, in just a matter of decades, became known as World War I. So maybe having past catastrophes front of mind when dealing with current ones isn't such a bad idea after all.