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Man diagnosed with rare disease asks if flu shot is to blame

A Calgary man is looking for answers after falling victim to a rare nerve disease, days after receiving his flu shot.

Ron Nielsen has been in hospital since early January, recovering from Guillain Barre Syndrome.

Maggie Nielsen is a big believer in the flu shot, so with an anniversary ahead this year she insisted her husband Ron roll up his sleeve.

“He’s never taken it before in his life,” she says. “He’s never gotten sick, and he’s never gotten the shot, but he went and got it on my urging.”

The Nielsen’s now wonder if that was a mistake, because nine days later Ron began experiencing strange symptoms.

“It started with a very sore shoulder,” says Ron. “It felt like it was dislocated, my right shoulder, and I didn’t do anything to warrant that.”

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His intense muscle pain turned into muscle weakness as a strange rare disease began to attack his nervous system. It would take more than two weeks before doctors figured out what was wrong – a rare condition called Guillain Barre Syndrome.

Calgary Neurologist Dr. Chris White says it’s a problem with autoimmunity.

“There is an immune attack on the nerves itself and what triggers that is still being sorted out or figured out,” he says.

Once diagnosed, the disease can be stopped but recovery requires months of intensive therapy.  Ron will be in hospital until at least late March.

While he works to recover, Ron also wonders why this happened and whether the flu shot he received in December could be to blame.

In a statement on the flu vaccine, Canada’s Public Health Agency warns the 1976 swine flu vaccine was associated with an elevated risk of Guillain Barre Syndrome. Ever since, the agency has monitored the disease closely.

“Actually proving something causes something requires a fairly in-depth study,” says Dr. John Spika, Director General, Immunization and Respiratory Infectious Disease, Public Health Agency of Canada.

“In general what we find is we get maybe three to nine cases that are reported every year where a patient has received a flu vaccine,” he says.

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That works out to one case per million doses; not enough to link the two, especially since Guillain Barre occurs in the general public at a rate of one in 100-thousand.

Officials do not know exactly what causes Guillain Barre, but it has been linked to bacterial infections and HIV.

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