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Flu Vaccine: Low Risk of Rare Disease

Study Notes "Very Low" Risk of Guillain-Barre Syndrome After Flu Vaccine
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WebMD Health News

Nov. 13, 2006 -- A new study shows there is a "very low" risk of a rare, serious disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome in people who get flu vaccines.

But the study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, doesn't discourage getting the vaccine.

Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) is rare; flu is common. And flu vaccines are the single best way to prevent flu, according to the CDC.

"We suggest that the decision to recommend vaccination against influenza should primarily be guided by evidence of its benefit," write the researchers, who include Kumanan Wilson, MD, MSc, of Canada's Toronto General Hospital.

Wilson's team says people who get flu vaccines "should be advised of the possible risk" of getting Guillain-Barre syndrome, "particularly in light of the serious consequences of the illness."

The possible link between Guillain-Barre syndrome and flu vaccination isn't new. The CDC recommends that people not get vaccinated if they've ever developed Guillain-Barre syndrome within six weeks of getting a flu vaccine.

About Guillain-Barre Syndrome

Guillain-Barre syndrome symptoms tend to appear quickly and worsen rapidly, sometimes leading to paralysis.

In the disease, the body damages its own nerve cells (outside of the brain and spinal cord), resulting in muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis.

Most people recover.

Early symptoms include weakness, tingling, and loss of sensation in the legs that eventually spreads to the arms. Blood pressure problems, heart rhythm problems, and breathing difficulties may occur in critical cases.

"Most people eventually recover completely or nearly completely, but some people have permanent nerve damage, and between 5% and 6% of people who develop GBS die," states the CDC's web site.

Guillain-Barre Study

Wilson's team tracked Guillain-Barre syndrome hospitalizations in more than 12 million adults in Ontario, Canada, who got flu vaccines between 1992 and 2004.

The vast majority who received flu vaccinations weren't hospitalized for Guillain-Barre syndrome during the study, but 1,601 people were.

In 269 of those cases, Guillain-Barre syndrome struck within 43 weeks (almost 11 months) of flu vaccination.

The study doesn't prove flu vaccines caused any of the Guillain-Barre syndrome cases. The findings "must be interpreted carefully," the researchers note.

Vaccination Time

October and November are the best months to get vaccinated against flu, but you can still get vaccinated in December or later, according to the CDC.

The CDC recommends annual flu vaccines for the following groups:

  • Children aged 6 months to 5 years
  • Pregnant women
  • People 50 and older
  • People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions
  • People living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • Health care workers
  • People who live with those at high risk for flu complications
  • Household contacts and caregivers of babies less than 6 months old.

The CDC says the following groups shouldn't get flu vaccines without first consulting a doctor:

  • People who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs
  • People who have had a severe reaction to a past flu vaccine
  • People who developed Guillain-Barre syndrome within six weeks of getting a past flu vaccine
  • Babies younger than 6 months
  • People who have a moderate or severe illness with a fever should wait to get vaccinated until their symptoms ease.

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