With students returning to cramped college classrooms in droves, the potential for a worsening swine flu pandemic seems almost unavoidable; a concern compounded by recent outbreaks in New York.
Recent reports from Cornell University, where over 520 students have already come down with flu symptoms, have heightened this fear locally. Given this, the course of action seems clear: it's time to go and get the new H1N1 flu vaccine. If only it were that simple.
In 1976 when a similar swine flu vaccine was administered en masse, 500 of those receiving the dose came down with a rare neurological disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome, which caused muscle weakness, loss of reflexes and feeling, paralysis, and in 25 of the 500 cases, death.
Cases of flu vaccine-related Guillain-Barré diagnoses have steadily continued to appear since 1976. This past year my uncle, a physician, was diagnosed with the disorder after what started as a "pins and needles" feeling in his hands led to a progressive loss of muscle strength and reflexes over a period of weeks. Eventually the disorder resulted in a loss of feeling in portions of his body and localized paralysis.
Doctors deemed the cause of his condition a side effect from the flu vaccine he had received through his employer earlier that year. After an extended hospital stay and continuing rehabilitation, most of his feeling has returned, although the nerve damage he garnered from the illness may never heal entirely.
It's important to note that the disorder is not limited to flu vaccines alone. Since 2006, reports of Guillain-Barré have resulted from the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine given to women and young girls, resulting in 18 deaths. Such occurrences have led 17 states to enact legislation to better educate the public of the vaccine's risks and other states to end mandating its administration.
This is not to say that becoming vaccinated is riskier than not. With many deaths attributed to the H1N1 virus in the U.S. already, not getting vaccinated also carries its own dangers. But because the risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome is often not listed as a side effect of the vaccine and is widely unknown by the public, it is important to become educated before making your decision.
Various polls of doctors in the United Kingdom published last month found that between 29 percent and 49 percent of doctors would reject receiving the vaccine, largely due to health risks and lack of proper testing. These concerns are surfacing at a time when states such as New York have begun mandating the vaccine for all heath care workers. Similar to the HPV vaccine, look to see these mandates reversed once the side effects begin to manifest.
Personally, after witnessing its effects in my own family, I will take the stance of many doctors and chose not to be vaccinated, opting instead for alternative methods that will decrease my risk without the potential for paralyzing side effects.
Wash your hands and have a safe flu season!