Guillain-Barré and Vaccines: What You Need to Know
The link between the rare neurological disorder and the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine may be real, but the risk appears to be very small.
By Emily Anthes
Johnson & Johnson’s beleaguered Covid-19 vaccine may be associated with a small increased risk of Guillain–Barré syndrome, a rare but potentially serious neurological condition, federal officials said on Monday. The Food and Drug Administration has added a warning about the potential side effect to its fact sheets about the vaccine.
The risk appears to be very small. So far, there have been 100 reports of the syndrome in people who had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Nearly 13 million doses of the vaccine have been administered in the United States.
Here are answers to some common questions about the syndrome and its connection to vaccination.
What is Guillain-Barré syndrome?
Guillain-Barré is a rare condition in which the body’s immune system attacks nerve cells. It can cause muscle weakness and paralysis. Although the symptoms often pass within weeks, in some cases, the condition can cause permanent nerve damage. In the United States, there are typically 3,000 to 6,000 cases of the syndrome per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is most common in adults over 50.
The precise cause of the syndrome is unknown, but in many cases the condition follows another illness or infection, such as the flu. It has also been reported in people with Covid-19.
What does it have to do with vaccination?
This is not the first vaccine that has been linked to Guillain-Barré, although the risk appears to be tiny. A large swine flu vaccination campaign in 1976 led to a small uptick in the incidence of syndrome; the vaccine caused roughly one extra case of Guillain-Barré for every 100,000 people vaccinated. The seasonal flu shot is associated with roughly one to two additional cases for every million vaccines administered.
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