Rare disease after flu shot prompts questions
In early October, Catherine Angel got her seasonal flu vaccine, something she has done every flu season for as long as she can remember.
By the end of the month, she couldn't walk.
It started with a weird tingling, then numbness in her fingers and hands. She shook it off, assuming it was just a byproduct of her rheumatoid arthritis. But the sensation progressed, traveling down her arms and abdomen and into her legs.
One day she tried to get out of bed and fell back. She couldn't stand.
Angel was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome; a rare disorder in which a person's own immune system damages the nerves, causing muscle weakness and often paralysis. It is the leading cause of non-trauma-induced paralysis in the world.
"I laid down and four hours later, I couldn't stand. That was the last I walked," she said.
Angel, who is her mid-70s, was diagnosed with the syndrome less than two weeks after getting the seasonal flu shot in Fayette County, where she lives. However, there is no direct link between the syndrome's incidence and seasonal flu vaccines.
"The amount of diagnosed GBS cases remain the same regardless of how many people get the vaccine year to year," said Jeff Neccuzi, director of immunization services for the state Bureau for Public Health.
Charleston Area Medical Center, where Angel is currently a patient, would not confirm nor deny that a GBS case has been found in West Virginia.
However, according to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, there has been one case of GBS in West Virginia in someone over the age of 65 years old reported since early October.
Even so, it's unclear if Angel's condition is actually linked to the vaccine.
"It's hard to associate any case with a vaccination, it's so rare," Neccuzi said.
In the past 30 years, numerous studies have been done to find if flu vaccines are associated with GBS. In most, no association is found, but two studies have suggested that about one out of 1 million vaccinated people may be at risk for GBS associated with the seasonal flu vaccine, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The only vaccine clearly linked to GBS was the 1976 swine flu shot. In that year, there was a small increased chance of developing the syndrome after getting the swine flu vaccine. About one more case per 100,000 people who got the swine flu vaccine in the '70s developed the syndrome, according to the CDC.
Each year, between 6,000 and 9,100 people in the United States get GBS, but few, if any, cases are actually linked to vaccines.