Va. teen suffers rare illness after swine flu shot
Boy diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, but CDC says no clear
Jordan McFarland, 14, was hospitalized for five days after coming
down with Guillain-Barre syndrome hours after receiving a vaccination
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Brendan Smialowski / for msnbc.com
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By JoNel Aleccia
updated 55 minutes ago
A 14-year-old Virginia boy is weak and struggling to walk after coming
down with a reported case of Guillain-Barre syndrome within hours
after receiving the H1N1 vaccine for swine flu.
Jordan McFarland, a high school athlete from Alexandria, Va., left
Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children Tuesday night in a wheelchair
nearly a week after developing severe headaches, muscle spasms and
weakness in his legs following a swine flu shot. He will likely need
the assistance of a walker for four to six weeks, plus extensive
“The doctor said I’ll recover fully, but it’s going to take some
time,” the teenager said.
Jordan is among the first people in the nation to report developing
the potentially life-threatening muscle disorder after receiving the
H1N1 vaccine this fall. His alarming reaction was submitted via
's reader reporting tool, First Person, by his stepmother,
Increased cases of GBS were found in patients who received a 1976
swine flu vaccine, but government health officials say they've seen no
rise in the condition associated with the current outbreak.
So far, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have
received five reports of GBS in people who received the H1N1 vaccine
since Oct. 6, not including Jordan’s case, said Dr. Claudia J.
Vellozzi, deputy director for immunization safety.
Out of about 40 million doses of H1N1 vaccine available to date,
that’s a far lower rate of GBS than the 1 case that develops in every
1 million people who receive the regular flu vaccine.
"It's much less than we'd expect," she said, adding that many cases go
In 1976, about 1 additional case of GBS developed in every 100,000
people who were vaccinated against the swine flu, according to the
Jordan's parents said doctors diagnosed the teen with GBS, a rare
muscle disorder that develops when a person’s own immune system
attacks the nerves, causing muscle weakness, difficulty walking and
sometimes paralysis and death.
Hospital officials didn't dispute that the boy had GBS, but refused to
comment on the boy's condition or treatment, even after his family
“They don’t want to create a fear or panic in the community,” said
Jordan's stepmother, Connin.
Connin and Jordan’s father, Calvin McFarland, both 38, believe the
shot sparked the illness that came on 18 hours after the boy’s
No clear link
But Vellozzi said there’s no clear link between the new vaccine and
“We know that GBS and other illnesses occur routinely in the U.S.,”
Vellozzi said, noting that 80 to 120 cases are diagnosed each week in
the general population.
“There are events that follow vaccination. That’s what they are, they
happened to follow vaccination.
GBS is among the most severe adverse events being tracked with updated
systems developed by the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration and the
American Association of Neurology in order to monitor the rollout of
the H1N1 flu vaccine.
So far, CDC officials have received about 1,700 reports of adverse
events linked to the new shot, Vellozzi said. Of those, only about 4
percent, or 68, were coded as serious. That’s on par with reports
regarding seasonal vaccine.
While any harmful side effect can be devastating for an individual,
when it comes to larger public health issues, the H1N1 virus is
considerably riskier than the vaccine, experts say.
“The H1N1 illness is making lots of children very ill," Vellozzi said.
"There’s lots of illness and lots of death."
So far, more than 4,000 people have died from H1N1 infection in the
U.S., according to latest estimates by the CDC.
Since the start of the H1N1 vaccine campaign, the CDC has repeatedly
warned that certain conditions, such as miscarriage, heart attack and
even GBS occur regardless of immunization, and officials have urged
the public not to blame the vaccine for the illnesses, but to report
promptly any suspected side effects.
Officials at Inova Fairfax had not reported Jordan's case to the CDC
as of early today, and did not respond to queries about whether they
would report the adverse event.
Vaccine critic Barbara Lowe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine
Information Center in Vienna, Va., said assuming all potential side
effects are coincidence is a mistake. Such an attitude is likely to
prevent doctors and other health workers from reporting adverse events
in a timely manner, obscuring a true picture of any problems.
Fisher said only between 1 percent and 10 percent of adverse events
are reported to the government's Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting
System, which was set up to track problems with vaccines. A 1986 law
requires reporting of certain adverse events to VAERS, but there are
no sanctions for not reporting, Fisher noted. CDC officials said
general reporting to VAERS is voluntary. Potential side effects of
Like the seasonal flu shot, the H1N1 vaccine may cause minor side
— Soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given
— Low-grade fever
The nasal-spray version of the vaccine contains weakened virus, and
side effects may include:
— Runny nose
— Muscle aches
— Sore throat or cough
On rare occasions, flu vaccination can cause serious problems, such as
severe allergic reactions that include difficulty breathing,
hoarseness, wheezing, swelling around the eyes or lips, weakness or a
fast heart beat.
If any unusual condition occurs after vaccination, you should seek
immediate medical attention, tell your doctor what happened, the date
and time it happened and when the vaccine was given. Ask your doctor,
nurse or health department to report the reaction by filing a Vaccine
Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) form. Or you can file this
report yourself online at www.vaers.hhs.gov
Fisher said she suspects that many more cases of GBS have occurred in
the wake of the H1N1 vaccines.
"We basically have people blowing it off," she said. "We need to make
sure people are reporting."
Eager for protection
Like many parents across the country, Arlene Connin said she was eager
to protect Jordan and his brother, Lleyton, 7, against the flu. When
she took the boys to the local health department for seasonal flu
shots on Nov. 5, the provider said H1N1 vaccine was available, too.
There was “not even a thought,” that either boy would have a reaction,
Connin said. Within hours, however, Jordan developed severe headaches,
chills and back spasms. The family rushed him to the closest hospital,
Dewitt Army Community Hospital, where doctors conducted neurological
exams, a CT scan and an EKG test.
The small hospital didn’t have the facilities to diagnose or treat
Jordan’s illness, so he was transferred by ambulance on Nov. 6 to
Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va., a spokesman said. Doctors
there quickly gave Jordan intravenous immunoglobulin, a standard
treatment for GBS, Connin said.
“GBS, that’s the diagnosis they gave us and that’s how they were
treating him,” Connin said.
A hospital spokesman, Tony Raker, declined further comment on Jordan's
case. When an msnbc.com
photographer asked to view Jordan's chart,
even with his father's permission, hospital officials refused.
Doctors are reluctant to discuss GBS in connection with vaccines,
Connin said. Anti-vaccine groups frequently cite the disorder as
evidence of vaccine dangers, which public health officials fear will
discourage people from getting life-saving protection, especially in
the case of H1N1.
Jordan’s experience has made his parents think hard about
immunization, even though they’ve always insisted on annual flu shots.
Under CDC guidelines for children 9 and younger, Lleyton should
receive another booster shot of H1N1 vaccine to protect him fully
against the virus.
“I have mixed emotions on that one,” Calvin McFarland, the boys’
father, said. “We’re not sure what we’re going to do about that.”