From globeandmail.com, Monday, November 18, 2002
Flu shot left executive paralyzed
PUBLIC HEALTH REPORTER
As an executive with a big Bay Street company, Brian Claman does not "have
time to waste being sick."
So, when flu shots were offered at the office a year ago, he was quick to
to the boardroom and get vaccinated.
"I've had the flu a couple of times and it's nasty, so I figured it was a
win-win situation," Mr. Claman said.
Two weeks after his flu shot, Mr. Claman awoke with a pounding headache and
strange feeling in his feet. The doctor was reassuring, telling the
businessman that the symptoms were probably related to stress.
His condition deteriorated, so he made his way to a hospital emergency
body was gradually going numb.
Doctors immediately recognized the tell-tale signs of Guillain Barre
baffling, potentially fatal condition that resembles polio.
By afternoon, Mr. Claman was completely paralyzed. He was placed in
care and put on a respirator.
He spent the next eight months in hospital and now, a year after his flu
is just beginning to walk unassisted again.
"It's been a harrowing experience," Mr. Claman said in an interview.
"Never in my wildest dreams -- or maybe I should say nightmares --
have imagined almost losing my life to the flu shot," According to Health
Canada, there have been 37 cases of GBS since 1987 where a link to the flu
vaccine is suspected. But it cautions that because reporting is not
the number of cases is probably underreported, and that because GBS occurs
number of other reasons, it is often difficult to make a causal link.
The mundane medical term for what happened to Mr. Claman is "adverse
That usually means a little fever and maybe some swelling at the injection
but a small minority suffer severe reactions such as Guillain Barre
inflammatory disorder of the peripheral nerves (those outside the brain and
While the exact cause is unknown, GBS appears to be an autoimmune disease
which the body's disease-fighting system mistakenly attacks the covering of
nerves. At least half the cases seem to be triggered by a microbial
Mr. Claman suffered a severe reaction; usually GBS will reverse itself
The link to vaccines was first made in 1976, when hundreds of people in the
United States developed Guillain Barre after getting the swine-flu vaccine.
Claman's experience, getting sick suddenly two weeks after the shot, is
Public-health officials are quick to point out that while GBS is a
condition, it is rare, and getting the flu is a far more dangerous
In a paper published in the Canada Communicable Disease Report, Philippe De
Wals, an epidemiologist in the department of community health services at
University of Sherbrooke, calculated that for a person over the age of 65
at greatest risk from the flu) the risk of dying of GBS after a flu shot is
about one in 10 million, while the risk of contracting influenza and dying
person is not vaccinated is about one in 1,000. In other words, the fear of
should not dissuade people (seniors, at least) because the risk of dying
not getting the shot is 10,000 times greater.
Mr. Claman knows the math all too well, but said it is meaningless to
"The rareness of complications means nothing if you're the one suffering
the adverse reaction," he said. "It's like the lottery: The odds mean
because everyone thinks they're going to win. With the vaccine, it's the
opposite: Nobody thinks this can happen to them."
Despite his experience, Mr. Claman is not opposed to the flu vaccine or the
public-health campaigns urging everyone to get a shot. But he thinks the
is too sugarcoated.
"Let's talk about the real risks of influenza and the real risks of the flu
and let people make an informed decision," he said. "But let's not pretend
because a flu shot is generally a good idea that nothing bad is ever going
happen." Mr. Claman said his biggest loss was personal -- staying in
and away from his family, in particular a teenage son. Being off work for
during the prime of his earning power also took a financial toll.