July 12, 2012 — Two studies regarding H1N1 vaccine side effects were published today. The first found no evidence of an increased risk of birth defects in the babies born to women who were vaccinated. The second study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the H1N1 vaccine was associated with a doubled increased risk of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Because the disease is so rare, however, the increased risk is very small. In both studies, researchers concluded that the benefits outweighed the harm of the vaccine.
In 2009, the H1N1 virus (also known as “swine flu”) caused a global pandemic. Although some experts were criticized for over-reacting to the disease, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now estimates that approximately 575,000 people died from swine flu in 2009 — a number 15-times greater than what officials reported during the outbreak.
During the pandemic, health officials in Quebec, Canada took immediate action. They ordered a mass-immunization of everyone 6 months or older. Approximately 57% of the city’s 7.8 million residents were given an H1N1 vaccine.
In the last swine flu outbreak in 1976, U.S. officials also undertook a mass-immunization program. Afterward, approximately 500 cases of Guillain-Barré Syndrome were attributed to the vaccine.
Quebec health officials ordered an investigation to monitor how many cases of Guillain-Barré Syndrome were linked to the immunization program. During the study, a total of 83 cases of Guillain-Barré Syndrome were identified. Of these, 25 occurred within two months of the patient receiving an H1N1 vaccine.
The researchers concluded that the H1N1 vaccine was associated with approximately two extra people who got Guillain-Barré Syndrome per one million doses of the vaccine. Similar studies in the U.S. found findings consistent with this estimate.
Guillain-Barré Syndrome is a type of nervous system disorder that begins suddenly, characterized by weak motor control, loss of reflexes, and paralysis. The disease is believed to be caused by an auto-immune reaction in response to an external stimulus, such as a bacterial infection or a vaccine. Most people who suffer from this disease are hospitalized within 5 days. Guillain-Barré Syndrome can also cause severe paralysis and respiratory distress, which may require assisted ventilation or intubation. In some cases, Guillain-Barré Syndrome is deadly.
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