PURE POLITICS AND IMPURE SCIENCE: THE SWINE FLU AFFAIR

By Arthur M. Silverstein. 176 pages. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
In the annals of American public health, nothing else is quite so bizarre as the events of 1976 identified popularly with the name ''swine flu.'' As a precautionary measure, Federal health authorities mounted the largest, most concentrated effort ever attempted by the Government to immunize the population in one season against an influenza epidemic that they knew might or might not occur. The concern was heightened by a chemical resemblance between the so-called swine flu virus and one believed to have caused the 1918 pandemic, the most ferocious and deadly world outbreak of flu in modern history. But the 1976 epidemic never came. For the immunization program, the Government spent more than $100 million and mobilized public health forces all over the country. That winter proved to be one of the mildest flu seas ons on record. More than 90 m illion doses of vaccine were left over, unused then and useless for a ny strain of flu virus that has appeared since. More than $9 million has been paid out in damages for a rare disease that seemed to be brought on by some aspect of the 1976 immunization experience; but just how this paralytic disease, called Guillain-Barre syndrome, may actually have been linked to flu vaccination is unknown. Dr. Theodore Cooper, then Assistant Secretary for Health in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and Dr. David Sencer, director of the Center for Disease Control, the two highest ranking Federal health officials responsible for the swine flu effort, lost their jobs in its aftermath. Their dismissals were evidently on the grounds that they moved too fast and too far against a health threat that was never more than potential. In his fascinating brief account of the affair, Dr. Silverstein argues that there really were no human villains or appropriate scapegoats in the swine flu affair. Dr. Silverstein argues that the next such effort should be conducted with much less fanfare than was the case in 1976. He warns that Federal officials should not let remembrance of the swine flu epidemic that never came make them timid in taking steps to deal with a new potential threat. The author, professor of ophthalmic immunology at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, observed the events at close hand during a year on the staff of the Senate health subcommittee. His account seems clearly to be the best account yet written of that strange set of events.
Author: journalist critics by Harold M. Schmeck Jr.
Published in the journal The New York Times, January 5, 1982.