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Flu shot linked to risk

Canadian research finds potential for neurological syndrome in recipients of annual influenza inoculation

Nov 14, 2006 | Newsday

As federal health officials promoted the benefits of flu vaccinations yesterday, scientists in Canada warned about a rare but potent danger that sometimes occurs with the annual shots.

Dr. David Juurlink of the University of Toronto reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine that the yearly flu shot is associated with a small but noteworthy risk. He said the shots can lead to hospitalization because of a neurological condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome.

The potentially debilitating disorder is characterized by nerve inflammation and muscle weakness. It can occur after a number of infectious disorders, such as West Nile disease. The flu vaccine link though controversial has raised concerns among some scientists, but even Juurlink advised caution.

"Our results must be interpreted carefully," he said. The increased risk is extremely low about 1 in 100,000 people in the population.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the syndrome is incredibly rare and that complications from the flu are the greater and more substantial danger.

CDC statistics document 36,000 deaths annually as a result of the flu and 200,000 hospitalizations.

Gerberding said the nation has a record supply of vaccines and Americans should strongly consider getting a shot. It is the second time in a month that she and other federal health officials have underlined the importance of influenza vaccination.

Gerberding said 77 million doses will be distributed to private physicians and clinics by the end of November. The rest of more than 100 million doses will be available by December.

Only 9 million doses will be free of mercury, Gerberding said, which is used in infinitesimal amounts as a preservative. Many groups have expressed concern about the additive known as thimerosol, which they say is linked to autism and other debilitating conditions.

Gerberding said there are no known dangers from the additive and emphasized the benefits of flu vaccination. The risk of influenza outstrips any perceived dangers with the preservative, Gerberding added, as she described the plight of a mother whose unvaccinated child died as a result of the flu.

She also encouraged people nationwide to continue lining up for shots throughout winter. "The season for vaccination does not end at Thanksgiving," she pointed out, saying that flu shots are effective even when administered in December and beyond, because flu infections often don't peak until spring.

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