Guillain Barre Syndrome, sometimes shortened to Guillain-Barre or GBS, is a rare condition which impacts upon the peripheral nervous system, leading to rapid-onset muscle weakness. It is categorised as an autoimmune disease and is the result of the body's immune system attacking the peripheral nerves, causing inflammation and loss of function.
Common symptoms associated with GBS include numbness, tingling, muscle pain, muscular weakness and difficulty swallowing. Although most people affected by the disease will make a full recovery, the condition can be life-threatening, with some patients experiencing weakness in their breathing muscles, or heart rate abnormalities.
Treatment will typically consist of some form of immunotherapy, such as intravenous immunoglobulins or a plasma exchange. Occasional long term complications include a loss of sensation, a loss of balance and an inability to walk unaided. As many as 20 percent of patients report continued muscle weakness after three years.
The majority of patients who develop Guillain Barre Syndrome have experienced some kind of infection in the immediate period beforehand, while some instances have been specifically linked with the influenza virus. However, despite this link, an association has also been reported between Guillain-Barre and vaccinations against influenza.
In particular, the immunization period which followed the 1976 to 1977 swine flu outbreak produced increased incidences of Guillain Barre Syndrome, with around one case per 100,000 vaccines. Several subsequent vaccination campaigns have also produced an increase in occurrences of GBS, albeit not to the same extent.
Although the chances of developing Guillain-Barre after a flu shot are considered extremely small, the Journal of the American Medical Association lists GBS as the neurological condition most frequently reported after receiving a flu vaccination. Meanwhile, statistics released by the US Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that Guillain-Barre was the number one side effect resulting in successful compensation claims following flu shots.
In spite of the relatively small chances of developing GBS in the aftermath, the condition remains a concern to many people being offered flu vaccinations. Yet, many medical experts and researchers around the world have been keen to stress that the benefits of receiving a flu shot far outweigh the risks associated.
Moreover, a study published by the US Centre for Disease Control found that influenza vaccines can actually reduce a person's risk of contracting Guillain-Barre, simply by cutting the risk of developing the flu virus itself.
While the study confirmed that flu vaccines do slightly increase a person's chances of developing GBS, it found that influenza itself presented a level of risk which was ten times greater. Therefore, by protecting patients from the flu virus, it could be argued that vaccines function as a preventative measure against Guillain Barre Syndrome.