In Bird Flu Vaccine Hunt, 1976 Tragedy Looms

The decision to inoculate is still defended by Dr. David Sencer, director of the Centers for Disease Control in 1976.

"If there was a pandemic and we hadn't done anything," he says today, "there would have been a lot more deaths than we saw."

Sencer says the big mistake in 1976 was ceding the decision making to politicians, a mistake he hopes is not repeated.

"The more it's recognized as a health problem and decisions are made by health personnel," he adds, "the better off we'll be."

Which Bird Flu Strain Will It Be?

Today in Rochester and at the other centers, there is confidence the mistakes of 1976 won't be repeated with bird flu.

"We have demonstrated that the vaccine is safe," says Treanor. "The name of the game now is finding a vaccine that is equally effective."

Treanor says scientists have had time they did not have in 1976 to follow the development of the bird flu. But underscoring the difficulty is the notorious ability of a flu virus to change its characteristics rapidly.

"If a pandemic were to arise," he says, "it's very possible that the pandemic strain would not be exactly the strain as the one in the vaccine we're testing."

In that case, Treanor says it might take four to six months to develop the proper vaccine.

But unlike 1976, he says, nothing in 2006 will be done in panic.

"I think the commitment right now is not to immunize until there is clear evidence of person to person to person transmission," he says. "And that, I think, would be a signal suggesting that pandemic is inevitable. And would probably be a good time to start vaccinating people."

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