This week, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 12 countries report suspected cases of narcolepsy linked to swine flu H1N1 vaccinations, especially in children and adolescents ages four to 19. But WHO advisors have not changed their position: they still recommend people get vaccinated anyway, saying the benefits outweigh the relatively small risk.
"The committee agrees that further investigation is warranted concerning narcolepsy and vaccination against influenza (H1N1) 2009 with Pandemrix and other pandemic H1N1 vaccines," the WHO said. The European Medicines Agency is also looking into the possible link.
Pandemrix is not a type of H1N1 vaccine being used in the United States, because it contains an immune-boosting compound not approved for flu shots in the US.
WHO's Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety raised concerns about narcolepsy after reviewing data from a Finnish study which found children injected with the GlaxoSmithKline Pandemrix swine flu vaccine were nine times more likely to contract narcolepsy than those who were not vaccinated. Finland health officials say that during 2009-2010, that country had 60 reports of children and adolescents developing narcolepsy, and 52 of them had received the flu vaccine Pandemrix. Statistically, scientists agree that each report of an adverse event represents many more cases that are never reported.
According to the National Institutes of Health, narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that causes people to have irresistible bouts of sleep at various times throughout the day. Other frequent symptoms include "cataplexy, or the sudden loss of voluntary muscle tone; vivid hallucinations during sleep onset or awakening; and brief episodes of total paralysis at the beginning or end of sleep."
According to Finland's National Institute of Health and Welfare for Finland, "the most likely explanation is that the increase in narcolepsy is by joint effect of the vaccine and some other factor(s)" such as a biological predisposition for narcolepsy. The report says most of the cases lasted several months.
A CBS News investigation in October 2009 found that US government reports of swine flu outbreak appeared to be greatly exaggerated. Laboratory data from all 50 states showed that, statistically, the vast majority of cases diagnosed as H1N1 swine flu were actually not flu of any sort. But the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had instructed doctors to diagnose and count any illness that appeared flu-like as swine flu, without confirmatory testing.