No, You Shouldn’t Let Fears of a Scary Nervous System Disease Stop You From Getting a Flu Shot

<a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/cat.mhtml?lang=en&language=en&ref_site=photo&search_source=search_form&version=llv1&anyorall=all&safesearch=1&use_local_boost=1&search_tracking_id=zzSE_JzDvwv597GmHnujzA&searchterm=flu%20vaccine&show_color_wheel=1&orient=&commercial_ok=&media_type=images&search_cat=&searchtermx=&photographer_name=&people_gender=&people_age=&people_ethnicity=&people_number=&color=&page=1&inline=174319181" target="_blank">Sherry Yates Young</a>/Shutterstock

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


Despite abundant evidence that flu vaccines are safe and effective, only about a third of Americans get the shots each season. Public health experts believe that one reason for the low immunization rates is misinformation about side effects of the vaccine. One is the belief that the vaccine can actually give you the flu (false); another is that it can cause autism in children (also false, as we’ve said many times).

“Your risk of GBS actually goes down when you get the vaccine because it prevents the flu.”

Add that to the worry that it will cause a rare but serious nervous-system disorder called Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS), an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, resulting in muscle weakness, or even temporary paralysis. This fear is not completely unfounded—several studies, including a recent one by Italian researchers about the 2010-2011 vaccine—have found that getting a flu shot can indeed very slightly elevate one’s risk of contracting the disease, by about one additional case per million people.

But here’s where things get complicated: While it’s true that the flu vaccine can raise your GBS risk, so can the flu itself. So which is more likely to lead to GBS: Getting the vaccine or getting the flu?

That’s the question that Steven Hawken and Kumanan Wilson, epidemiologists from The Ottawa Hospital, set out to answer. The researchers developed a calculator that took into account baseline GBS risk (overall, it’s about 10 in a million, though it varies with age and sex—GBS affects more men than women and more elderly people than young adults and children), vaccine effectiveness, and overall incidence of flu. Their findings: For most people, in a flu season where the flu incidence is greater than 5 percent and the vaccine is more than 60 percent effective, says Wilson, “your risk of GBS actually goes down when you get the vaccine because it prevents the flu.”

That’s good news in most years, when the flu vaccine is well over 60 percent effective. Here’s the problem: This year’s flu vaccine is only about 23 percent effective. Still, according to Wilson, while this year’s total flu incidence isn’t yet known, it appears to be greater than that of an average year—much higher than 5 percent. That means that even with the reduced effectiveness of the vaccine, the overall GBS risk is likely still greater for people who contract the flu than for those who get immunized, says Wilson.

What’s more, he adds, it’s important to keep in mind that the risk of serious complications from the flu outweighs that of acquiring GBS. Last year, according to the CDC, 9,635 people were hospitalized with the flu in the United States. According to the CDC there are between 3,000-6,000 cases of GBS annually (though no hospitalization data is available). Most of those cases aren’t caused by flu vaccines or the flu itself; the most common cause of GBS is infection with the bacterium Campylobacter jejeuni, usually the result of eating contaminated food.

The takeaway: The GBS risk from the flu itself is most likely greater than that of the vaccine. And while GBS can be a scary disease, it’s much less common than scary complications FROM the flu.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.