Influenza Vaccine Roll Out

Hands holding influenza vaccine, 1957

Photograph by Walter Sander

The First U.S. National Vaccination Campaign Launches

By early September 1957, production of pandemic vaccine was in full swing.

Because the pandemic influenza virus was antigenically different from previously circulating influenza A viruses, the U.S. population would be virtually defenseless against that virus. Federal and state public health agencies agreed that the public should be vaccinated.

But the process of how the vaccine would be delivered to the public quickly became a dilemma.

The U.S. Public Health Service devised a system so that each U.S. state would receive an allotment of influenza vaccines based upon its population size, and vaccine manufacturers would distribute the vaccine through their usual commercial networks.

State and local public health officials would educate the public about the vaccine, in addition to identifying priority vaccination groups. While vaccine manufactures distributed vaccines to each state based on population, beyond this point the priority system – in many instances – was not followed.

People at a flu clinic in Harlem, New York, 1957

People waiting in line in Harlem, New York, 1957

Photograph by Bettmann, courtesy of Getty Images

Limited Vaccine Supply Leads to Priority Groups

Public health authorities urged that vaccines first be given to people in “priority groups” due to limited vaccine supply. There were two priority groups: people who were at high risk of complications or death, and individuals who provided “essential” services such as healthcare, military and communications.

Despite these urgings, evidence showed that influenza vaccine was not distributed first to priority groups. Also, community doctors heavily swayed public opinion about vaccination. If the local healthcare providers were not concerned about influenza in its city, a vaccination campaign could fail.  

Asian Influenza vaccination commercials, 1957
Each health education program had two main goals: to inform the public about the pandemic and to encourage people to receive influenza vaccines.
Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

Influenza Vaccine Study Volunteers, 1957

Influenza vaccine study taking place at CDC, 1957

CDC’s Influenza Vaccine Work during the 1957 Pandemic

Due to limited supplies of influenza vaccines during the 1957 pandemic, many doctors hoped to extend their supply by administering the vaccine intradermally rather than the recommended subcutaneously. Dr. Keith Jensen, CDC’s WHO Influenza Collaborating Center Director, lead studies to compare antibody response produced by the two routes of inoculation. Fifty-four volunteers were given 50 cca units intramuscularly and 31 volunteers were given the same dose intradermally. Dr. Jensen determined that there was no significant difference between the two injection routes.

1957 Influenza Pandemic
Influenza Vaccine Roll Out