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Can Influenza Vaccine Cause Injury and Death?


The most common influenza vaccine reactions, which begin within 12 hours of vaccination and can last several days are: fever, fatigue, painful joints and headache.

One of the most serious documented influenza vaccine reactions is Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). 1  An immune mediated painful and disabling neurological disorder that can occur after viral infection or vaccination, GBS involves inflammation of the peripheral nervous system and can cause temporary or permanent paralysis that may lead to death. 2 GBS usually develops within two to four weeks of vaccination.

Characterized by muscle weakness, unsteady gait, numbness, tingling, pain, GBS can cause paralysis of the face or one or more limbs. It can take several months for recovery or leave the affected person with chronic health problems and disability.3 The mortality rate with GBS occurs mainly in the elderly and those who develop severe complications.4

Brain and nerve disorders such as brain inflammation and encephalopathy, Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis (ADEM), optic neuritis, partial facial paralysis, and brachial plexus neuropathy, as well as vasculitis, have also been reported following influenza vaccinations. There have been few biological mechanism studies conducted and public health officials state that a causal relationship between influenza vaccine and GBS has not been definitively established. 5The CDC states that: 6

“Some studies have found a possible small association of injectable flu vaccine with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). Overall, these studies estimated the risk for GBS after vaccination as fewer than 1 or 2 cases of GBS per one million people vaccinated. Other studies have not found any association. GBS also, rarely, occurs after flu illness. Even though GBS following flu illness is rare, GBS is more common following flu illness than following flu vaccination. GBS has not been associated with the nasal spray vaccine.”

Adult influenza vaccine injury claims are now the leading claim submitted to the federal Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP), with GBS as the leading alleged injury.7 8

In 2015, a published Canadian study9 found that the effectiveness of the flu vaccine decreased when a person received the shot two years in a row. As a result of these negative findings that implied the vaccine increased a person’s susceptibility to influenza, study authors recommended further research be completed.10

In 2017, a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) funded study reported that women vaccinated in the early part of their pregnancy with a flu vaccine containing the pandemic H1N1 (H1N1pdm09) strain and who also had been previously vaccinated the prior season with a  H1N1pdm09-containing flu vaccine had a greater risk of miscarriage in the first four weeks following vaccination. The CDC is in the process of conducting further research among women who were pregnant during the 2012-2013 through 2014-2015 flu season and eligible to receive the flu vaccine. Results of this study are expected in late 2018 or 2019.11

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1  Kwong JC, Vasa PP et al. Risk of Guillain Barre Syndrome after seasonal influenza vaccinations and influenza health care encounters: a self-controlled study. The Lancet Infectious Diseases 2013; 13(9): 769-776.

2  GBS Flu Vaccine Reaction Leaves Nurse A Quadriplegic. National Vaccine Information Center Oct. 31, 2011.

3 CDC. Guillain-Barré syndrome and Flu Vaccine. Nov. 2, 2017.

4 Van den Berg B, Bunschoten C et al. Mortality in Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Neurology 2013; 80(18): 1650-1654

5 Institute of Medicine Committee to Review Adverse Effects of Vaccines. Adverse Effects of Vaccines Evidence and Causality. Influenza Vaccine. pp 293-420.  Washington, D.C. The National Academies Press 2012.

6  CDC. Flu Vaccine Safety Information: Do flu vaccines cause any side effects? Oct. 5, 2017.

7 Department of Health and Human Services. Advisory Committee on Childhood Vaccines (ACCV) Meeting. Mar. 3, 2011.

8 HRSA. Vaccine Injury Compensation Program Data and Statistics. Aug 8, 2018

9 Skowronski DM, Chambers C et al. Interim estimates of 2014/15 vaccine effectiveness against influenza A(H3N2) from Canada's Sentinel Physician Surveillance Network, January 2015. Euro Surveill. 2015 Jan 29;20(4).

10 Yourex-West H, McIntosh S, Canadian study finds flu shot could increase risk of getting sick. Global News. Jan. 30, 2015.

11 CDC. Flu Vaccination & Possible Safety Signal. Sep. 13, 2017

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