A New Westminster man is raising a warning flag after he contracted a rare and debilitating condition linked to the flu shot that left him paralyzed for almost five months.
Every fall, health care workers across Canada distribute 10 million influenza vaccinations, and for the vast majority of people, the flu shot causes no major problems.
Within two weeks of getting his annual flu shot in 2007, however, Richard Ryan, 44, went from being happy and healthy to being in excruciating pain.
At first, Ryan thought he had injured his back, and he checked into the local hospital emergency room, he told CBC News on Wednesday.
But Ryan was also suffering some numbness, and when a neurologist tested his reflexes, he found Ryan had none, he said.
"The doctor asked me what was going on in my life. And as soon as I said I was feeling ill after getting a flu shot, he said, 'Stop right there, I know what you have,'" Ryan said.
Guillain-Barré syndrome linked to vaccine
The neurologist diagnosed Ryan with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that attacks the nervous system.
According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, the chance of developing that particular disease from a flu shot is one in a million.
But as Ryan learned the consequences can be severe. By the time the emergency room exam was over, he was unable to get up. He spent the next 10 weeks recovering in hospital, including three weeks in intensive care, barely able to breathe or eat for himself.
"My face was paralyzed. I had no feeling inside my mouth. I couldn't feel my tongue. My left eye wouldn't close so it had to be taped shut to sleep," he said.
The illness progressed into a lifelong condition known as chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), and a year later he remains heavily medicated, unable to work, and has memory problems.
Although the disease is in remission, he is not expected to make a full recovery, and the chronic condition could return at any point in the future.
Worth the risk?
Now Ryan is concerned that public health officials are promoting the flu vaccine while most people are not fully aware of the risks.
However, Dr. Danuta Skowronski, an epidemiologist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, says the benefits of the flu vaccine still outweigh the risks for the vast majority of people.
"Nothing is completely risk-free," she told CBC News. "It is always a matter of weighing the benefits and the risks."
Medical information provided with flu shots does mention the one-in-a-million chance of getting Guillain-Barré syndrome.
But it is especially important for people with heart and lung problems, the elderly and the chronically ill, to get the influenza vaccine because it could save their lives, Skowronski said.
"Influenza itself can be life threatening, and it's those groups that we want to make sure are not put off from receiving influenza vaccine unnecessarily," said Skowronski.
There are more than 2,000 flu-related deaths in Canada every year. Seniors, people with weak immune systems and some children are at highest risk.
More common possible side-effects of vaccinations can include fever, muscle pain and weakness.
For his part, Ryan maintains that he's a good example of the fact that the benefits of the vaccination don't always outweigh the risks.
"I think if people knew how serious the illness is, they would think twice about the flu shot," he said.