Evidence Mounting for Link Between Narcolepsy, Swine Flu Vaccine

British study shows pattern between children receiving the 2009 swine flu vaccine, Pandemrix, and developing narcolepsy.

The current flu epidemic has been the worst on record since 2009, when the swine flu pandemic was at its peak. But while the latest flu crisis might be temporarily calming down, the 2009 swine flu pandemic continues to have an impact on people’s health. According to an upcoming British study, the widely-used swine flu vaccine, Pandemrix, might be responsible for approximately 800 Swedish and other European children developing the incurable sleep disorder narcolepsy, with many more potentially at risk.

Narcolepsy affects 1 in 2,000 people worldwide, but many cases go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. The disorder is characterized by chronic, excessive attacks of drowsiness during the day. Approximately 200,000 Americans live with narcolepsy.

Nearly 30 million people received Pandemrix, made by GlaxoSmithKline, and since then cases of narcolepsy have spiked in the following countries: Sweden, Finland, Norway, Ireland, and France. The vaccine was used primarily in Europe; it was not approved for use in the United States.

The link between narcolepsy and Pandemrix has been under investigation since 2010, when the possible association was noticeable enough that GlaxoSmithKline began investigating the vaccine’s side effects. The company said the information available at the time was “insufficient to assess the likelihood of a causal relationship between Pandemrix and narcolepsy.”

A study published in March 2012, in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE, stated that “a sudden increase in the incidence of abrupt childhood narcolepsy was observed in Finland in 2010.” Scientists reached this conclusion after comparing rates of childhood narcolepsy from 2002 to 2009, before the swine flu and use of Pandemrix, and the rates in 2010, after the use of Pandemrix.

The rate for the first period was 0.31 children per 100,000 being diagnosed with narcolepsy. During the second period, the rate had increased to 5.3 children per 100,000. The study named Pandemrix as a contributing factor to heightened risk factors for children developing the sleep disorder.

In September 2012, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control announced that Pandemrix was linked to a higher risk of narcolepsy in children and teens in Sweden and Finland. The agency also concluded that the drug should no longer be used in people under the age of 20.

The soon-to-be-published new study uncovered a similar pattern of children developing narcolepsy in other countries that had already been evident in countries like Sweden and Finland. Children faced a higher risk for developing the sleep disorder after they received GlaxoSmithKline’s swine flu vaccine.

The current investigation and study aim to answer questions about the link between the sleeping disorder and the vaccine, what the triggers were for narcolepsy, and how genetic susceptibility played a role.

By Jeffrey Kopman