The story of the swine flu epidemic and the pig who cried wolf

Influenza_Vaccination_1976 The swine flu outbreak is now a national emergency, a swine flu epidemic, coming in, it seems, from Mexico. Here in California, travel to Mexico is nothing, heck, one of my daughter’s middle school teachers pops down there to surf every time he’s got a three-day weekend.

So I should be concerned. I’m trying to be concerned. But I’m having trouble working up a healthy level of paranoia because I used it all up during the swine flu panic of 1976.

I was at Michigan State then, one of 45,000 students. Since swine flu was expected to attack young, healthy people living in close quarters, we figured we were going to be ground zero for this epidemic. We were afraid, very afraid, and relieved when the administration told us that we were all going to be vaccinated. We were herded into long lines somewhere in the center of campus; we didn’t even have to go to the health clinic. And we were zapped in the arm by some kind of shot-gun; the person giving the vaccine simply pulled a trigger; I remember thinking this was pretty amazing. What I don’t remember thinking about is whether or not I wanted this vaccine (of course I did, if I didn’t get it, for sure I was going to die), or hearing anything about possible side effects.

I went back to my dorm feeling relieved; that was done, now I could get back to parties and obsessing about boys and, oh yeah, classes and studying.

Instead, for the next day or so, my dorm mates and I found out about one scary side effect—random episodes of fainting.

My suitemate was the first to go down. She taking a shower in our shared bathroom, my roommate and I heard a thud and went in to see what was going on, and she was on the floor. It hit me a few hours later; I started to get up from the couch, and, classically, things did start to fade to black; I managed to toss myself back down on the couch safely, but was afraid to stand up again for a long time. And we weren’t the only ones; from what we heard, it seemed like more people were having fainting spells than weren’t. And we all felt altogether lousy for at least 24 hours.

I was one of 40 million people vaccinated in the U.S. that year.  There was no epidemic, a reported 25 people died from the vaccine itself. I pretty much forgot about the whole experience, chalking it up as a waste of adrenaline and time.

Until now. This time, it may be for real. So I’ll have to try to forget about 1976, and pigs who cry wolf.

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