Does the COVID-19 vaccine cause Guillain-Barré syndrome?


A: The Janssen vaccine may increase the risk of Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), but we don’t yet know for sure. Even if it does, the risk of GBS is extremely small. Currently, there is no evidence that the mRNA vaccines (like Pfizer or Moderna) increase the risk of GBS.

Guillain-Barré Syndrome is a neurological disorder that happens when the body’s immune system attacks the lining of the nerves, called myelin. Bacterial and viral infections (including COVID-19) are the most common triggers to develop GBS, but it has also been reported in super rare cases after other vaccinations (like flu). Why does this happen? No one is exactly sure, but it might be due to something called “molecular mimicry.” This is when the immune response is stimulated, and some unlucky folks develop antibodies that will help fight the infection but also “cross react” to recognize and attack nerve cells. When the myelin on the nerve cells gets damaged, the nerve can’t conduct its signal well and doesn’t work right.

People who develop GBS typically experience muscle weakness, numbness, and tingling that starts in the feet and legs and moves up the body over the next several weeks. Some folks also have pain in the back or even develop trouble breathing. Symptoms can range from mild to severe (from a little weakness to paralysis) and rarely some people die. Most people completely recover from GBS within several months, even including people who are very sick and need hospitalization. Between 3,000 and 6,000 people get GBS every year.

The US CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) met on July 22, 2021 to review the data looking at a possible association with the Janssen (aka Johnson and Johnson) one dose COVID-19 vaccine and GBS. Here is what they found:

➡️An analysis of the Vaccine Adverse Event Reports System (VAERS) data found 100 PRELIMINARY reports of GBS following vaccination with the Janssen vaccine after about 12.5 million doses have been administered. 95 of those were serious and required hospitalization and 1 person died.

➡️The VAERS data suggests a possible association with GBS and the Janssen vaccine (the number of reported cases of GBS was higher than expected for the “background rate”), but it is not conclusive. The cases have not yet been confirmed to actually be GBS (the CDC is looking into this) and vaccine safety surveillance is ongoing. If all the cases turn out to be true, that is about 7.8 cases per million doses among adults.

➡️The benefit of the Janssen vaccine is still WAY more than the potential risks and is a recommended vaccine to prevent COVID-19.

➡️There is no evidence of increased risk for GBS with the mRNA vaccines.

➡️You can read all the slides and presented data here.

The big takeaways here are that although more research is warranted, the potential risks from this vaccine are still super low, the benefit of the vaccine is still super high, and the vaccine safety monitoring system works really well! The Delta variant is spreading fast, and the vaccines are excellent at preventing severe illness and death. Healthcare professionals continue to recommend all eligible people get one of the COVID-19 vaccines.

After receiving the vaccine (or really any time honestly), if you develop weakness or tingling that is spreading to other parts of the body, difficulty walking or breathing, difficulty with facial movements (like speaking or eating), or double vision, please seek immediate medical attention.

Stay safe. Stay informed.

The Nerdy Girls

Links for more info:

Cleveland Clinic Info on GBS and COVID-19 vaccine

FDA update

Yale Medicine News Article

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