Video: Can U.S. learn from swine flu threat?

By Robert Bazell Chief Science & Health Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/7/2005 10:01:58 AM ET 2005-12-07T15:01:58

While Tuesday’s meeting between President Bush and World Health Organization Director Dr. Lee Jong-wook dramatized the international threat of bird flu, the president is struggling with House Republican budget cutters over his $7.1 billion request to fight bird flu.

He is not the first president to pay so much attention to a pandemic influenza threat.

It was 1976. The threat was swine flu.

“No one knows exactly how serious this threat could be,” President Ford said then, adding, “Nevertheless, we cannot afford to take a chance with the health of our nation.”

Ford ordered enough vaccine to protect the entire country after one Army recruit died and some scientists predicted a pandemic. Some say Ford acted so quickly partly because of politics — the way some say Mr. Bush focused on bird flu after hurricane Katrina.

"The issue was, was he going to be decisive?" recalls Joseph Califano, who served as secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Carter administration. "What was he going to do?"

In early 1977, Califano faced the issue himself. Swine flu never reappeared, but 40 million Americans got shots and a few developed a rare paralytic disease called Guillain Barre syndrome. The vaccination program was ended. But then regular flu broke out and the only vaccine available was mixed with swine flu.

“I was required to make this decision as to whether to release this vaccine,” Califano remembers.

Califano gathered experts, released the vaccine and fired the head of the Centers for Disease Control who had urged President Ford to undertake the aggressive campaign.

He says the episode offers guidance for today's threat.

“My first response is count to 10,” Califano says. “Let's get the best people we have in infectious diseases and vaccines to look at this problem.”

Those experts say we need to take the threat seriously. But they emphasize that the swine flu episode shows how difficult it is to forecast a pandemic and how harmful a rash response can be.

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