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Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Flu Vaccines

University of Florida football  fans everywhere are downcast today at the news that former quarterback Danny Wuerffel has been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder where the immune system mistakenly attacks part of the nervous system. The 1996 Heisman Trophy winner was one of the all-time great college quarterbacks, leading the Gators to 4 SEC championships in 4 years, and the 1996 national championship. His NFL career was less successful, however--just 10 starts and 2100 passing yards over 6 seasons--and he retired from the game in 2002. Since then, he has worked at a small faith-based non-profit that works throughout the southern United States. After recovering from a stomach virus contracted during one of the non-profit's retreats, he began to lose feeling and strength in his arms and legs. Fortunately, because the disease was caught early, a full recovery is more likely. Nevertheless, because of its debilitating effects, GBS is still a serious disorder, and, because it is normally triggered by an infection, some people have wondered: can a vaccine (which often consists of a weakened form of an infection) cause GBS?

Those fears were given some legitimacy in 1976, when a swine flu vaccine had an increased risk of GBS of 1 in every 100,000 people. A 2003 CDC review of the data confirmed this increased risk, but, importantly, stopped short of fingering flu vaccines in general as the cause. Since then, no other studies have shown a connection between flu vaccines and increased risk of GBS. Earlier this year, a study of the side effects of the H1N1 vaccine given to 90 million Chinese in 2009 and 2010 found no increase in the rate of GBS diagnoses. Experts remain unsure why the 1976 vaccine saw an increase in risk of GBS, but it seems less and less likely that the vaccine itself was to blame.