Woman Gets Guillain-Barré Syndrome After J&J Vaccine, Says She'd Get Shot Again

A Houston woman who developed the rare neurological condition Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) after receiving the one-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine said she would get the shot again despite her experience.

Jamie Walton spent 22 days in hospital after developing the condition, ABC13 reported. The woman first noticed that something was wrong at the beginning of June when she began experiencing numbness and tingling in her feet and hands.

"I know my body and I knew something wasn't right, so I kept trying to go to different doctors and I kept being told, 'You're dehydrated. You're fine,'" Walton told ABC13. "One doctor told me I had anxiety."

As the condition developed, Walton became paralyzed from the waist down and was unable to walk. It took two visits to the emergency room and consultations with several doctors before her brother-in-law, who is a physician, determined that she had Guillain-Barré.

Doctors at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston performed a spinal tap, which confirmed that she was suffering from the rare syndrome. Walton received treatment at the hospital and eventually began to regain feeling in her lower body.

She also received physiotherapy in order to learn how to walk again and perform other basic movements.

GBS occurs when the body's immune system mistakenly attacks some of its own nerve cells, which can lead to symptoms such as muscle weakness, tingling and even paralysis. The condition usually affects the feet hands and limbs.

GBS can be treated and people usually recover completely, although in some severe cases the condition can be life-threatening or leave patients with long-term health problems. Around one to three people out of every 100,000 develop GBS annually in the U.S., Dr. John W. Sanders at Wake Forest Baptist Health told Newsweek.

The causes of GBS are poorly understood but it often seems to be triggered by an infection, according to Sanders. The auto-immune disorder has been associated with a large number of viral infections, such as influenza. But it is most commonly linked to infection with a bacteria called Campylobacter.

Infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has also been reported as a trigger for GBS. However, the global medical advisory board of The GBS/CIDP Foundation International told Newsweek that there is presently no "convincing" data to support a link between COVID-19 and GBS, with some "well-performed" epidemiologic studies showing no increased incidence of the latter after the former.

Previously, there have been suggestions that influenza vaccine might also trigger GBS—"although on balance it seems unlikely that it does," Dr. Peter English, a retired consultant in communicable disease control and former editor of Vaccines in Practice, said in a statement provided to Newsweek.

"If it does, it does so at a much lower rate than influenza disease does—so much lower that, even if the vaccine does cause GBS in a tiny fraction of recipients, the odds of getting GBS are much greater if you don't get vaccinated, because it makes you more likely to get flu, and to get GBS secondary to your flu infection," he said.

Now, U.S. health regulators have said there could be a possible link between the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the rare neurological syndrome.

On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) updated the factsheet for the shot to warn of an observed increase risk of Guillain-Barré following vaccination with a J&J dose.

The FDA said that based on an analysis of data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting (VAERS) system, there have been 100 preliminary reports of GBS following vaccination with the Johnson & Johnson shot after around 12.5 million doses administered. Of these 100 cases, 95 required hospitalization and one individual died.

The agency said it had not established yet whether the vaccine caused the neurological syndrome in these cases.

"Although the available evidence suggests an association between the [Johnson & Johnson] vaccine and increased risk of GBS, it is insufficient to establish a causal relationship," the FDA said in a statement. "No similar signal has been identified with the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that the vaccine may pose a "small possible risk" of Guillain-Barré.

In the case of Walton, her doctors at Memorial Hermann Hospital said they are confident that the J&J vaccine, which she received around three months ago, triggered her case of GBS, ABC13 reported. Walton said she self-reported her case to the CDC.

Despite her experience, Walton said she would "absolutely" still get the vaccine.

"I think that what I went through was horrible. I hope no one else ever has to go through that, but I would definitely take the vaccine again," she told ABC13.

English said it is not "surprising" that reports of a link between Guillan-Barré syndrome and a COVID-19 vaccine have emerged.

"I note, however, that the regulators do not say that a causal link has been confirmed. There is a well—established process for establishing whether any such possible link is causal or not," he said.

"While it may be that a causal link will eventually be established, it is at least as likely—probably considerably more likely—that GBS is more likely following COVID-19 than following vaccination; and that the best way to avoid this somewhat alarming but generally self-limiting condition is to be vaccinated."

The FDA, for its part, said that it continues to recommend the J&J shot after having evaluated the GBS reports. The agency said it "continues to find the known and potential benefits clearly outweigh the known and potential risks."

According to Sanders, the available information suggests a "possible linkage" between the J&J vaccine and GBS but noted that this hypothesis comes simply from preliminary statistical analysis of the VAERS data.

"The number of reports received is slightly higher than was expected, so there is concern that there could be an association with the vaccine, but since this is such a rare event, it could just be a coincidence," Sanders said.

"I am not aware that there is anything inherent in the design of the J&J vaccine that would make it more likely to trigger GBS," he said. "The J&J vaccine uses an adenovirus vector to deliver the vaccine. Adenoviruses have been reported as a possible trigger for GBS along with many other viruses, but the adenovirus that they use has not previously been thought to be a common trigger for GBS."

Sanders said he suspects that natural infection with SARS-CoV-2 triggers at least as many cases of GBS as the vaccines might, although the data on this issue is not yet clear.

"We certainly know that GBS occurs more commonly following other infections, such as influenza, than following other vaccines, such as the influenza vaccine," he said. "The same logic applies to other immune problems triggered by either a natural infection or vaccine. The problems from the natural infection are usually more common."

He added that the J&J shot was a "very good vaccine," which has proven to be "very safe and effective."

"The FDA has shown appropriate caution to be reviewing all potential safety issues, including these very rare events. I would still not hesitate to take it myself or recommend it to others. However, if someone is worried about the safety of the J&J vaccine, we have two other very safe and effective options in the United States and I would strongly encourage them to take one of those."

The GBS/CIDP Foundation International's global medical advisory board said it was "premature" to answer whether or not there was a concrete link between the J&J vaccine and GBS.

"The cases were gathered by a passive reporting system. We need to learn more about how the diagnosis of these 100 cases was made," the board said.

"We are following COVID and vaccination closely, and share the FDA's position on vaccine safety and efficacy. We strongly encourage vaccination with one of the several COVID vaccines that are currently available."

Woman in a hospital bed
Stock image showing a woman in a hospital bed. A Houston woman spent 22 days in hospital after she developed Guillain-Barré syndrome following administration of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. iStock