Even though the H1N1 vaccine is widely available, lots of people have held off on getting it, some because they’re scared of side effects or getting sick from the vaccine itself. Part of that concern stems from what happened during the 1976 swine flu outbreak. After getting vaccinated, 500 people contracted a rare, paralyzing autoimmune syndrome called Guillain-Barre (say “ghee-YAN bah-RAY”) or GBS. Thirty-two people died after getting GBS, compared with only one person who died from the actual swine flu.
I had GBS my senior year of college. Therefore I won’t be taking any chances.
What is GBS?
GBS can occur after respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infections, vaccines or surgery. There is no known cure. It affects only one in 100,000 people yearly, but its impact is devastating. GBS attacks the nerve endings of the body and can lead to temporary or permanent paralysis and even death.
I developed GBS after a respiratory illness. Within two days, I couldn’t walk and was admitted to the hospital ICU for a week, receiving a high-dose of immunoglobulin through an IV to boost my immune system. My case was considered moderately severe; mild cases include trouble with balance and walking, while severe cases can paralyze your respiratory muscles, forcing you to rely on a ventilator for survival.
I had three months of twice-a-week physical and occupational therapy to re-learn how to walk. My mother had to feed, bathe and clothe me. I had to start my last semester of college three weeks late (thankfully, my teachers e-mailed me my assignments). Back at school, I struggled with walking to class and carrying my books. One morning, I slipped in the snow outside my townhouse and couldn’t pick myself up, and a classmate had to help me. I was constantly tired, yet slept only a few hours a night because my body ached from my nerves repairing themselves.
Thankfully, I fully recovered. But vaccines are tricky for me. Immune stimulation is considered to play a role in the onset of GBS, and since vaccines generate an impact on the immune system, they may be linked with the syndrome. I was already told by my gynecologist not to get the Gardasil vaccine because of my GBS history (some women and teens have developed GBS after getting the vaccine or the cervical cancer shot Cervarix). Since GBS can recur and be so debilitating and even deadly, I’ve decided for now to avoid vaccines all together.
Experts say the vaccine is safe.
Experts are still unsure as to why the 1976 swine flu vaccine was linked to GBS. But doctors say today’s H1N1 vaccine is more developed and therefore presents less concern of GBS.
“The vaccine in 1976 was made in a fairly short timeframe. Generally speaking, the manufacturing process today is far better in terms of quality control and the evaluation of each step of the process. It’s something that gets highly scrutinized by the FDA,” said Dr. William Winkenwerder, Jr., a physician and the former assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. (He also recommended that I get the H1N1 vaccine.)
“For other years [after] 1976, the risk seems to have been much lower, with a rate attributed to vaccines likely one case per million in some data…Clearly the risk after influenza vaccine has been extremely low and rare,” he said.
As for the people scared of getting the flu from the shot, Dr. Margaret Lewin, medical director of Cinergy Health in New York, says that can’t happen. She recommends the vaccine for children and young adults up to age 24.
“You can’t catch the flu from the flu vaccine,” she said, though some people might get a fever or achiness — because like any vaccine, it works by revving up the immune system.