About 200 people have already received the new H1N1 flu vaccination as part drug trials in St. Louis. The drug trials are expected to last a couple of months and then the vaccine will be available for this winter's flu season. Flu shots are commonplace these days, but it's been 33 years since the government administered a flu vaccine for the H1N1 strain of influenza. If you're old enough to remember the 1976 swine flu outbreak, you'll recall that the government ended the vaccination program before everyone got a shot. The flu pandemic that they feared, never happened and 500 people came down with a rare brain disorder, called Guillain-Barre Syndrome or GBS. Only 1 person died from the swine flu, but 25 people died from GBS.
Now that a new H1N1 flu vaccine is being manufactured to give to millions of Americans, is it fair to ask whether there's a risk of another outbreak of GBS? Recently, The Daily Mail newspaper in England reported that the nation's neurologists were told to be on alert for an increase in cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome that could be triggered by the H1N1 vaccine. The alert was communicated in a confidential letter, raising questions about whether the British government was trying to conceal the real risks from the vaccine.
I talked with Saint Louis University School of Medicine faculty member and infectious disease specialist, Dr. Donald J. Kennedy to get a clearer picture of the risks from taking the vaccine. While it's still unclear what all the factors are for getting GBS, researchers do not believe that flu shots, or the swine flu shot of 1976, are the direct cause. There's a statistical link between the swine flu vaccination and GBS, just as there's a statistical link between AIDS and gay men. We know there's a higher incident of AIDS cases among gay men, but the HIV virus is the cause of AIDS, not being gay. Similarly, there's a statistical correlation between the H1N1 flu vaccinations and GBS, but researchers have now determined that at least 60% of the cases are caused by Campylobacter infections.
There are risks of side effects from every medicine and adverse reactions are monitored and reported to the Centers for Disease Control. If the risks outweigh the benefits from a vaccine, it's discontinued. Take a look at the numbers once again. In 1976, 40 million Americans received an H1N1 flu shot and only 25 deaths were blamed on GBS. 25 is a large number when compared to just 1 death from the swine flu. However that disregards the fact that 40,000 people die each year from the seasonal strain of flu and it's estimated that an H1N1 flu pandemic would kill many more than that. When you look at those numbers in that light, Doctor Kennedy says, the benefits far outweigh any risks from getting the H1N1 flu vaccine.