This week we have a question from a reader:
I’m a 60-year-old with a history of Guillan-Barré syndrome. Is it safe to get the vaccinations for the flu, pneumonia, shingles, etc. that are on the general checklist when I go for an annual physical?
Dr. Prescott Prescribes
I called in reinforcements: Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., an immunologist and rheumatologist who also serves as vice president of clinical affairs at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Here’s what Dr. James had to say:
“Every individual is different, and it’s always best to consult with your own physician for your individual health care. That said, vaccines are usually safe for individuals with a history of Guillan-Barré syndrome (GBS), providing significant benefit in preventing infections or viral reactivation such as shingles.
In the distant past, individuals who received the 1976 swine flu vaccine or select rabies vaccines did have a higher rate of GBS, which is characterized by numbness, weakness and sometimes paralysis in the legs, arms and other parts of the body.
However, more recent studies have not found an association between current vaccinations and GBS. Indeed, as the syndrome may occur after an infection, vaccinations may even by helpful (although there is no data to directly support that).
Still, the GBS Foundation does recommend that if your initial course of GBS occurred within 6 weeks of receiving a vaccination, you should avoid that particular vaccination in the future.
It’s important to remember that the vast majority of patients who have had GBS will never have a recurrence. Meanwhile, vaccinations can help protect you from relatively common illnesses that can be extremely painful or even life-threatening.
For example, the rate of herpes zoster – shingles – is about 1 in 100 for someone your age, and the Shingrix vaccine is quite effective in decreasing this risk. The annual flu vaccine is also a great way to protect from seasonal influenza, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates has already been responsible for more than 22 million cases, 120,000 hospitalizations, and 12,000 deaths this season.
For these reasons, you should consider vaccinations; the benefit may outweigh the low possibility of harm.”