Myth of the Month: Vaccinations in patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome


A 66-year-old woman presents as a new patient for a clinic visit. She has a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome 10 years ago. The last immunization she received was a tetanus-diphtheria 12 years ago.

What do you recommend for her to receive over the next year?

A. Pneumococcal 13/Pneumococcal 23/Tdap/influenza vaccines.

B. Pneumococcal 13/Pneumococcal 23/Tdap vaccines.

C. Influenza vaccine.

D. No vaccines.

Dr. Douglas S. Paauw

Dr. Douglas S. Paauw

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is a rare, acute, immune-mediated polyneuropathy that has an incidence of about 2 cases per 100,000 people each year.1 Most cases of GBS follow an infectious event (usually an upper respiratory infection or gastrointestinal infection). In 1976, administration of the swine flu vaccine was associated with an up to eightfold increased risk of GBS.2,3 Many patients who have had GBS have been advised not to – or are fearful to – receive influenza vaccine or any vaccine.

Is there good evidence for patients with a history of GBS to avoid influenza vaccines or vaccinations in general?

The initial concern over the increased risk of GBS following the large-scale influenza vaccination in 1976 has not been realized with subsequent influenza vaccines. In a study by Baxter and colleagues, GBS cases from Kaiser Permanente Northern California from 1995 to 2006 were reviewed.4 They looked at whether patients had received influenza vaccine in the 6 weeks prior to GBS, compared with vaccination within the prior 9 months.

The odds ratio for influenza vaccination in the 6 weeks prior to GBS was 1.1 (95% confidence interval, 0.4-3.1). The odds ratio for receiving tetanus diphtheria vaccine in the 6 weeks prior to GBS was 1.4 (95% CI, 0.3-4.5); pneumococcal 23 vaccine, 0.7 (95% CI, 0.1-2.9); and all vaccines combined, 1.3 (95% CI, 0.8-2.3).

Shahed Iqbal, MBBS, et al. looked at the relationship between influenza illness, pneumonia, influenza vaccination, and GBS.5 They found that although influenza vaccine coverage increased from 20% to 36% over the study period, there was not an increase in GBS hospitalizations over the same period. There was a significant correlation between hospitalizations for pneumonia and influenza and GBS hospitalizations in the same month.

In a simulation study, Steven Hawken, PhD, and his colleagues concluded that under typical conditions (influenza incidence greater than 5% and vaccine effectiveness greater than 60%), influenza vaccination reduced GBS risk.6

There are fewer data on vaccination in patients who have previously had GBS, but there is enough evidence to help guide us.

Roger Baxter, MD, and colleagues, using the database in reference 4, looked at outcome of patients with GBS who received vaccinations subsequent to recovery from GBS.7 A total of 279 patient with previous GBS received a total of 989 vaccinations, including 405 trivalent influenza vaccinations. None of the patients with GBS who received vaccinations had a recurrence of GBS.

Krista Kuitwaard, MD, et al. reported identical findings in a survey of patients with a history of GBS or chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP).8 A total of 245 patients with GBS responded to the survey. A total of 106 GBS patients had received influenza vaccine following their GBS diagnosis (a total of 775 vaccinations in those patients). None of the patients with a history of GBS who received influenza vaccination had a recurrence of their GBS.

The current position of the GBS/CIDP Foundation on vaccination for patients with GBS is as follows: The GBS/CIDP Foundation recommends avoiding immunizations that a GBS patient had received within 6 weeks of developing their initial symptoms.9

I think the current evidence is enough to guide us in this issue. Vaccinations, including influenza vaccine, are likely safe for patients with a history of GBS. The recommendation of the GBS/CIDP foundation is reasonable – to avoid immunizations that appeared to have potentially triggered the initial GBS (ones that had been received within 6 weeks of onset of symptoms).

In the case presented above, I think that choice A – receiving all the recommended immunizations – would be appropriate.


1. Neuroepidemiology 2011; 36(2):123-33.

2. Am J Epidemiol. 1979 Aug;110(2):105-23.

3. Clin Infect Dis. 2014 Apr;58(8):1149-55.

4. Clin Infect Dis. 2013 Jul;57(2):197-204.

5. Vaccine. 2015 Apr 21;33(17):2045-9.

6. Emerg Infect Dis. 2015 Feb;21(2):224-31.

7. Clin Infect Dis. 2012 Mar;54(6):800-4.

8. J Peripher Nerv Syst. 2009 Dec;14(4):310-5.

9. GBS/CIDP Foundation International, Position on Flu Shots and Vaccinations.

Dr. Paauw is professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle, and he serves as third-year medical student clerkship director at the University of Washington. Contact Dr. Paauw at [email protected].

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