Man nearly dies from "adverse reaction." to Flu shot

Tuesday, November 19, 2002 TORONTO, Canada -- As an executive with a Bay Street company, Brian Claman does not "have the time to waste being sick."

So, when flu shots were offered at the office a year ago, he was quick to get vaccinated. "I've had the flu a couple of times and it's nasty, so I figured it was a win-win situation," Claman said.

Two weeks after his shot, Claman, 47, awoke with a pounding headache and a strange feeling in his feet. The doctor was reassuring, telling him the symptoms were probably related to stress. His condition deteriorated, so he made his way to a hospital emergency room. His body was gradually going numb. Doctors immediately recognized Guillain Barre syndrome, a baffling, potentially fatal condition that resembles polio.

By afternoon, Claman was paralyzed. He was placed in intensive care and put on a respirator. He spent the next eight months in hospital and now, a year after his flu shot, is just beginning to walk unassisted again.

"It's been a harrowing experience," Claman said. ''Never in my wildest dreams . . . could I have imagined almost losing my life to the flu shot.''

According to Health Canada, there have been 37 cases of GBS since 1987 where a link to the flu vaccine is suspected. But it cautions that because reporting is not mandatory, the number of cases is probably underreported, and that because GBS occurs for several other reasons, it is often difficult to make a causal link.

The mundane medical term for what happened to Claman is "adverse reaction." That usually means a little fever and maybe some swelling at the injection site, but a small minority have severe reactions such as Guillain Barre syndrome, an inflammatory disorder of the peripheral nerves (those outside the brain and spinal cord).

While the exact cause is unknown, GBS appears to be an autoimmune disease in which the body's disease-fighting system mistakenly attacks the covering of the nerves. At least half the cases seem to be triggered by a microbial infection. Claman had a severe reaction; usually GBS will reverse itself within a few months.

The link to vaccines was first made in 1976, when hundreds of people in the United States developed Guillain Barre after getting the swine-flu vaccine. Claman's experience -- getting sick suddenly two weeks after the shot -- is typical.

Public health officials are quick to point out that while GBS is a devastating condition, it is rare and getting the flu is a more dangerous prospect.

In a paper published in the Canada Communicable Disease Report, Philippe De Wals, an epidemiologist in the department of community health services at the University of Sherbrooke, calculated that for a person over 65 -- those at greatest risk from the flu -- the risk of dying of GBS after a flu shot is about one in 10 million, while the risk of contracting influenza and dying if a person is not vaccinated is about one in 1,000.

If you can believe that...