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Friday, 25 September 2009

Swine Flu Today Is Far More Deadly

For months the country was gripped in fear and panic over swine flu. What was rumor and what was truth were mixed as the government planned a massive inoculation program. The year was 1976.

What is happening today is similar to the what happened in 1976, with a few exceptions. Then, Gerald Ford was in the White House, and bell-bottom trousers were in style. Today, the strain of swine flu sweeping the globe is much more deadly, and is known to have caused almost 3,000 deaths since it emerged earlier this year in Mexico and the U.S. And, today it is commonly referred to H1N1.

In 1976, "President Gerald Ford went on TV discussing the nationwide alert about the swine flu and that was the first time I had heard of swine flu," said Don Stroup, a clinical laboratory technician and supervisor in the hematology department of Coshocton Hospital.

At that time, Stroup had been at the hospital for four years as a lab tech. He was engaged to be married with two young children and he made sure his family received the shot.

"It wasn't really an epidemic or a pandemic. Way back when, we didn't have computers. We didn't have quick access to the news sources and such," he said. "I got it, because here at the hospital they urged health care workers to get it. At that point in time they didn't offer (flu shots) as they do now."

On Oct. 1, 1976, about 15 local clinics were announced by county health nurse Jeane Shuck for those older than 60, and younger residents in high-risk health groups. Shuck said she expected to receive about 1,500 doses of the vaccine in the first shipment to Coshocton County, just a quarter of the county's total allotment.

"In 1976 they identified a new form of the virus and were worried it was going to cause the next pandemic. They were pushing a vaccine out then the virus never circulated," Coshocton County Health Commissioner Robert Brems Jr. said.

By late October of that year, the vaccination drive was basically a disaster. City health nurse Candace Huff at that time said only 229 people had appeared at the first clinic.

By the end of November -- after the vaccinations were opened up to all adults -- only 4,124 vaccinations were reported county wide by Shuck, when about 6,000 doses total were allotted for the county.

A possible cause for the low turnout was said to be rumors in various outlets that the vaccination caused deaths. Excerpts from a letter by the Ohio Director of Health to local agencies, and printed in the Oct. 24 edition of the Coshocton Tribune, said of the 35 deaths reported within 48 hours of flu immunization all were attributed to other health factors and had nothing to do with receiving a flu shot.

"There was massive rumors floating around at that time that the vaccine would potentially kill you. There were rumors flying both positive and negative, either taking it or not taking it, roughing out the potential of getting the swine flu against getting the vaccination and being protected against it, but having the possibility of dying from the vaccine," said Stroup.

Coshocton Hospital Infection Control Nurse Kathy Reed said she was only in high school back then, but she would guess a major difference is hospitals today have better planning and policy models. Additionally, hospitals worked closely with the health departments and other area hospitals. That means if a surge in patients is seen in any area it's detected early and the proper personnel and equipment can be mobilized.

"I think we're a lot better prepared," she said . "We're not just in our own little world."

Brems said regardless of the disease, there are risks associated with taking medicines and getting vaccinated.

"Is the risk appreciably less than getting the illness?" Brems asked.

He said numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control reveal more than a million people in the U.S. have or have had H1N1.

"So we have a known virus that is circulating that is causing lots of people to get sick and a number of people to die. In '76, very few people were getting sick," Brems said. Speaking about today's vaccine, Brems said it not required, but is recommended. "We're not going to force people to get it if they don't want it."

Reed wants to make sure that people realize that all influenza is a major health issue and that extreme panic shouldn't be given to the H1N1 strain.

"The flu, in general, people need to take seriously. It is a serious illness," she said.

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