Tragedy struck the Grinva family in Saint Petersburg, Florida when their otherwise healthy 10-year old daughter became paralyzed 4 days after receiving her annual flu vaccine. Doctors say that she developed acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, (ADEM), an immune mediated disease of the brain. This disease causes inflammatory lesions in the brain and spinal chord, especially in white matter and the intersection between gray and white matter, that can lead to paralysis.
Unfortunately, the mechanimsm by which it arises isn’t fully understood. Given the tragedy of this incident, and the fact that flu season fast approaching, this story has been making headlines in Florida, and for good reason. The flu is scary, but becoming paralyzed by the vaccine that’s supposed to prevent you from getting sick is really scary. The news outlets I read did a good job at avoiding fear mongering, but I couldn’t help but that that anti-vaxxers would have more ammo for their crusade against vaccines. Not vaccinating people is dangerous, as the flu can kill elderly and immunocompromised people. In fact, on average 1532 people die in the United States from the flu every year, or about 1 in every 200,000 people who become infected.
The flu vaccine is only about 70% effective at conferring immunity to the seasonal influenza strain, but I did a bit more research, and it turns out that being infected with the flu can also cause ADEM, and that the likelihood of developing these symptoms is comparable in vaccinated and naturally infected patients. The risk is very small either way. People can have adverse reactions to the vaccine or to the virus itself.
For the time being, it seems that more research into the mechanisms of ADEM are warranted, but it doesn’t seem like a widespread public health concern yet.
What do you all think?