What is Guillain-Barré Syndrome? GBS and Vaccination

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Home / What is Guillain-Barré Syndrome? GBS and Vaccination
A spinal tap is done to measure the cerebrospinal fluid and to determine if the patient has GBS. Photo by James Heilman, MD

Doctors must conduct a spinal tap to measure the cerebrospinal fluid and to determine whether the patient has GBS. Photo by James Heilman, MD

Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) is an inflammatory disorder of the peripheral nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. No one knows for sure what causes Guillain-Barre, but it is rare – about one person in 100,000 have GBS.

According to the GBS and the CIDP Foundation International, 50 percent of Guillain-Barré cases occur after a viral or bacterial infection, such as the flu or food poisoning,  and GBS has also been associated with the influenza vaccination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that each year an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 people develop Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), whether or not they received a vaccine.

To hear first hand what it is like to have GBS, we will hear from Stephanie, a mother to two young boys, one of whom developed GBS after receiving his flu shot.

Symptoms of GBS

The first symptoms of GBS start in the legs with a tingling sensation and sometimes weakness – this then spreads to the arms and the upper body. These symptoms increase with intensity until the patient cannot move his or her muscles at all. When this occurs, it is a medical emergency, since breathing and heart muscles can be affected as well.

Patients reach the point of greatest weakness or paralysis days or even weeks after the first symptoms appear. Symptoms then begin to stabilize and can last for days, weeks, or sometimes months, reports the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

One Mother’s Story

Stephanie, a critical care nurse, took both her boys to the doctor for a check up on December 5, 2011. While at the doctor they also received their flu shots and had no adverse reactions at the time. From December 12 – 16, 2011, the youngest son, three-year old Zachary began to run a low-grade fever which went away. However on the night of Christmas, things changed drastically.

Stephanie tells Decoded Science,

“I was awakened to Zachary screaming, “Mommy I’m scared!” I found him bent over the toilet holding himself up with his arms; underneath, his legs looked like noodles unable to bear any weight. He told me he had gotten up to use the bathroom and his legs began hurting so badly that he couldn’t stand. I scooped him up and carried him to my bed, gave him some ibuprofen, and he was soon fast asleep. My nursing education kicked in and wondered, “Could this be Guillain-Barre’?” I quickly waved that away; as the risk was minuscule.

As the days went on, like most patients with GBS, Zachary’s gait became more and more unstable. Stephanie described her son’s condition, “Zach was attempting to walk to me, he was extremely pale and looked like a spaghetti noodle trying to ambulate. At this stage, Zach was exhausted all of the time and barely played. I carried him everywhere we went; the pain was so intense when he attempted to straighten his legs.

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