Report on reaction risks of flu vaccine
Health Canada study: Adverse side effects include eye irritation and total paralysisÂÂ*
Tom Blackwell
National Post
Tuesday, December 03, 2002ÂÂ*

Numerous Canadians who got flu shots last year had negative reactions ranging from swelling of the brain to anaphylactic shock and total paralysis, says an exhaustive new Health Canada report.

Others suffered convulsions, vomiting and chest pains, the department revealed in one of the most extensive studies ever conducted in Canada into the side-effects of vaccination.

But officials still stress the serious reactions are few and far between and are easily outweighed by the benefits of flu vaccinations.

"The risks are very minimal," said Dr. Wikke Walop, a vaccine epidemiologist with Health Canada and author of the report.

"I think the benefits ... certainly are clear for the very young and the very old, and particularly for people with chronic diseases. The reason we are going wider [than those groups] in some cases is to protect others, to get a good herd immunity."

Dr. Walop said she herself experienced one of the most common adverse reactions -- called oculo-respiratory syndrome, marked by temporarily red eyes and respiratory problems.

But she said she did not think twice about the symptoms and will not hesitate to be immunized again.

"I had my vaccine at one o'clock. I'm a little asthmatic and within 15 minutes I started coughing.... By seven, both my eyes were red," Dr. Walop said.

"Is it serious? Did I report it? No. It's a nuisance, but I went to bed and nothing else happened."

Public health authorities have increasingly recommended that people get vaccinated against the flu, noting pneumonia and other complications of the virus kill hundreds. Influenza immunization is also touted as a way to increase productivity and reduce crowding in emergency rooms.

Ontario offers free flu shots to anyone who wants one.

The Health Canada report looked at the 2001-2002 flu season, when more than nine million doses of vaccine were distributed. It received 1,800 reports of adverse reactions, suggesting the vast majority experienced no significant side effects.

The study was prompted in part by a significant number of people reporting oculo-respiratory syndrome. It uncovered more than 500 reports of that reaction.

Out of the millions of vaccine recipients, three also suffered from Guillaine-Barré syndrome -- a head-to-toe paralysis that can lead to death in extreme cases and has been linked to flu vaccine.

It usually is not permanent.

Another four suffered some form of paralysis to face or a limb, five experienced meningitis -- swelling of membranes around the spinal cord -- or encephalitis -- inflammation of the brain.

Five vaccine recipients suffered from convulsions and nine had anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can seriously hamper breathing and even cause death.

A financial services sector executive in Toronto revealed this year he contracted Guillaine-Barré after getting a flu shot last year and was in hospital, paralyzed, for months.

A Canadian who identified himself only as Brian revealed in a chat room for the Guillaine-Barré Syndrome Foundation International that he experienced the syndrome in November, 2001, and was told it was probably related to his flu shot.
"I spent 55 days in the ICU and was on a ventilator and received a tracheotomy," he wrote in his posting to the Web site.

"At the worst of it, I was in critical condition and was completely paralyzed [head to toe] until March. I was released from hospital on July 18, 2002, and am now on the road to making a complete recovery."

The Health Canada report notes while such reactions were reported by doctors, they did not necessarily occur as a result of the vaccine.

There are no major concerns about the safety of the shots, although surveillance should continue, the study concludes.

But some critics argue the risks of flu shots have been underestimated, in light of the vaccine's effectiveness and the prevalence of flu.

"Every fall, as the leaves float down, we are blanketed with ads urging us, 'Get a flu shot, not the flu,' " says the Vaccination Risk Awareness Network, a B.C.-based group.

"But rarely are we told how uncommon influenza is, how ineffective the vaccine is, and that it carries some serious risks for any of us."}