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H1N1 vaccine associated with small but significant risk of Guillain-Barre syndrome

July 10, 2012
JAMA and Archives Journals
In studies examining the risk of adverse outcomes after receipt of the influenza A(H1N1) vaccine, infants exposed to the vaccine in utero did not have a significantly increased risk of major birth defects, preterm birth, or fetal growth restriction; while in another, study researchers found a small increased risk in adults of the nervous system disorder, Guillain-Barre syndrome, during the four to eight weeks after vaccination, according to two recent studies.

Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) is usually characterized by rapidly developing motor weakness and areflexia (the absence of reflexes). "The disease is thought to be autoimmune and triggered by a stimulus of external origin. In 1976-1977, an unusually high rate of GBS was identified in the United States following the administration of inactivated 'swine' influenza A(H1N1) vaccines.

In 2003, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that the evidence favored acceptance of a causal relationship between the 1976 swine influenza vaccines and GBS in adults. Studies of seasonal influenza vaccines administered in subsequent years have found small or no increased risk," according to background information in the article. "In a more recent assessment of epidemiologic studies on seasonal influenza vaccines, experimental studies in animals, and case reports in humans, the IOM Committee to Review Adverse Effects of Vaccines concluded that the evidence was inadequate to accept or reject a causal relationship."

Philippe De Wals, M.D., Ph.D., of Laval University, Quebec City, Canada and colleagues conducted a study to assess the risk of GBS following pandemic influenza vaccine administration. In fall 2009 in Quebec an immunization campaign was launched against the 2009 influenza A(H1N1) pandemic strain. By the end of the year, 4.4 million residents had been vaccinated. The study included follow-up over the 6-month period of October 2009 through March 2010 for suspected and confirmed GBS cases reported by physicians, mostly neurologists, during active surveillance or identified in the provincial hospital summary discharge database. Immunization status was verified.

Over the 6-month period, 83 confirmed GBS cases were identified. Twenty-five confirmed cases had been vaccinated against 2009 influenza A(H1N1) 8 or fewer weeks before disease onset, with most (19/25) vaccinated 4 or fewer weeks before onset. Analysis of data indicated a small but significant risk of GBS following influenza A(H1N1) vaccination. The number of cases attributable to vaccination was approximately 2 per 1 million doses. The excess risk was observed only in persons 50 years of age or older.

"In Quebec, the individual risk of hospitalization following a documented influenza A(H1N1) infection was 1 per 2,500 and the risk of death was 1/73,000. The H1N1 vaccine was very effective in preventing infections and complications. It is likely that the benefits of immunization outweigh the risks," the authors write.

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Journal Reference:

  1. Geneviève Deceuninck. Risk of Guillain-Barré Syndrome Following H1N1 Influenza Vaccination in QuebecH1N1 Vaccination and Guillain-Barré Syndrome. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 2012; 308 (2): 175 DOI: 10.1001/jama.2012.7342

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JAMA and Archives Journals. "H1N1 vaccine associated with small but significant risk of Guillain-Barre syndrome." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 July 2012. <>.
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