Swine flu vaccine  Guillain-Barre syndrome

6th February 2010
Flu shot blamed for paralysis
Kingston woman on mend, hoping to walk again
By Michele Mandel

Just before Christmas, Stephanie Willette went from being a healthy nursing student to suddenly being a helpless patient paralyzed from the neck down with a tracheotomy so she could breathe.

Today the 20-year-old is slowly recovering in a Kingston rehab hospital, still unable to sit up, but hoping that she’ll eventually walk again.

The Lindsay woman is yet another person stricken with Guillain Barre Syndrome, yet another whose family blames her H1N1 flu shot for triggering the rare neurological condition.

“They can’t prove it, but they can’t disprove it. She was perfectly fine until two weeks after her shot,” says her angry mom Karen. “I think there’s a lot more cases out there than the government’s letting on. It’s a big secret.”

According to the ministry of health, they are investigating just four reported cases of GBS in Ontario following the province’s mass inoculation of five million people.

But we’ve already told the harrowing stories of two patients who blame their debilitating onset of GBS on the swine flu shot — which they received within days of each other at the same Markham doctors’ clinic.

Since then, four more GBS victims have come forward to the Sunday Sun. With the addition of a Hamilton case reported last November, that’s seven Ontario cases by our count alone.

So exactly how many have really been devastated by this highly touted vaccine? And why is Quebec the only province that has a no-fault compensation program for the unlucky few who suffer such a crippling side effect?

GBS can cause mild muscle weakness or severe paralysis and is diagnosed in about 600 Canadians every year after a bout with food-borne bacteria, viral infection or surgery.

Far more rarely, it can develop up to six weeks after a flu shot. It’s there in the waiver’s fine print: The risk of getting GBS after any flu vaccine is about one for every million doses.

While increased cases of GBS were found after the 1976 swine flu vaccine, there’s been no similar upsurge reported with this season’s shot. But how many cases are not being properly reported?

As of Jan. 23, the Public Health Agency of Canada was tracking 24 cases following vaccination, or .95 per million as expected. “Concerns about GBS have not emerged in connection with H1N1 vaccines,” the agency says.

That’s hardly comforting to another mother who almost lost her son last month.

“These numbers mean absolutely nothing when your child is lying in intensive care fighting for his life,” says Cathy, whose son asked that their last name not be used. “Then the odds are more like one in one.”

Her son Michael was a strapping, fit 26-year-old hospital worker who began complaining of tingling in his feet four weeks after his H1N1 shot. On Dec. 5, as he was losing feeling in his legs, his mom rushed him to St. Joseph’s hospital. A spinal tap confirmed GBS.

And then he deteriorated so quickly that he spent four days in intensive care, completely paralyzed.

“It was brutal,” Michael recalls, back at his Etobicoke home. “You’re trapped inside your brain. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even swallow my own spit. It was hell and there was a time I just wanted to die.”

He’s one of the lucky ones. His recovery has been almost as stunningly quick as his descent into paralysis. After a month in hospital and two weeks at West Park rehab, he’s weak, but walking again. “It feels like a bad dream,” he says.

But not for his mother. She wrote a scathing letter to several health officials, including Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada’s chief medical officer of health who has spent months urging everyone to get their H1N1 shot.

“I look forward to your replies as to how you can compensate Michael for his pain and suffering since all health officials promise over and over again that the H1N1 vaccine is safe,” she wrote. “What will you do for unlucky people such as Michael?”

A month later, and no one has even had the decency to reply.

Read Mandel every Sunday, Thursday and Friday. michele.mandel@sunmedia.ca or 416-947-2231.