By Alex Berntstein
After many years of misinformed presumptions regarding the safety of life saving vaccines, a recent breakout of narcolepsy in Europe does appear to hold an alarming association with a newly released British swine flu vaccine. Since being inoculated with GlaxoSmithKline’s Pandemrix H1N1 vaccine in response to the 2009 outbreak, nearly 800 children in Europe (primarily Sweden and Finland) have developed narcolepsy, an acute sleeping disorder that induces such debilitating symptoms as night terrors, and daytime drowsiness.
The dejecting reality for many families who have been struck with this malady is the permanent nature of this disorder. No cure is known, and the actual cause has yet to be properly identified and understood. A cocktail of sleeping pills, stimulants such as Ritalin, and antidepressants like Prozac can only attempt to treat the symptoms and ease the pain. And the pain is in fact great as the crippling symptoms destroy all hope of even the semblance of a normal life. Usually however, Narcolepsy is a particularly rare disorder that afflicts only around 1 out of 100,000 individuals. Yet, Science Nordic reports that among those who received the 2009 vaccine, the odds of children developing Narcolepsy appear to have been increased between 4-9 times. A dramatic increase in narcolepsy in Sweden triggered the alarm of the scientific community as the nation saw 168 new cases (150 of which were under the age of 18) since the administration of the H1N1 vaccine. Scientists who met at a special conference sanctioned by the Danish National Institute for Health Data and Disease Control have yet to determine the exact link of causation between the vaccine and its devastating side effect.
A genetic disposition theory is, however, in the works. Danish National Institute for Health Data and Disease Control (SSI) consultant Thyra Grove Krause reports, “Our hypothesis is that Pandemrix doesn’t directly cause narcolepsy; rather, it triggers the disorder in people who are predisposed to it.” All such hypothesizing is still inconclusive. Furthermore the administering of Pandemrix in Canada with no such increased narcolepsy rates further muddle the situation. A possible Nordic genetic predisposition may however be an explanation. Scientists do know that narcolepsy is associated with a lack of hypocretin (orexin), which is a neurotransmitter that determines wakefulness. Certain genetic predispositions to narcolepsy involving a variation of the HLA gene have been reported. Currently, the primary suspect for vaccine’s triggering of narcolepsy is its adjuvant system. More specifically, the shark liver derived squalene-containing ASO3 that is the reason for ban on the vaccine in the United States.
Nevertheless, the connection is quite clear as narcolepsy expert and Stanford professor Emmanuel Mignot points out “There’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that Pandemrix increased the occurrence of narcolepsy onset in children in some countries – and probably in most countries.”
By Nate Posey
It’s the least wonderful time of the year; with the last remaining cinders of holiday spirit dead and spring still nearly two months away, midwinter crushes the soul with long nights, brutal cold fronts, and the clutching bitterness of watching your favorite team being unceremoniously drummed out of the playoffs (WHY, Peyton Manning?!) — oh, sorry, I meant the perennial threat of influenza. Yes, it’s flu season once again. Fortunately, however, the 2012-2013 season does not appear to be one for the record books, but it was only four short years ago that the world was ravaged by the pandemic media coverage of the H1N1 “swine flu” virus, the symptoms of which included ominous taglines, the obsessive repetition of mortality rates, and gratuitous footage of pigs eating.
Needless to say, the H1N1 outbreak never managed to live up to the hype, but the ordeal provided fertile territory for speculation. What if it had been worse? What if it had been much worse? The 2011 film Contagion directed by Steven Soderbergh provides a chilling glimpse of a near-future global pandemic. The movie tracks the spread of the exceedingly virulent MEV-1 virus through the split perspectives of both civilians and government officials as they desperately try to stay afloat amidst the rising tide of chaos, for it soon becomes clear that fear is the greatest threat of all. In one of the film’s most riveting scenes, Admiral Lyle Haggerty informs Dr. Ellis Cheever from the CDC of the implications of going public with the full extent of the outbreak, saying “When the word gets out, there will be a run on the banks, gas stations, grocery stores.” Ashen, Dr. Cheever murmurs that “The virus will be the least of our worries.”
To be sure, humanity has a rich history of such global crises. The Black Death which decimated Europe and Asia between the years of 1348 and 1350 cut the world’s population by as much as one third, while the far more recent Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed between 20 and 50 million people worldwide. Since then, of course, medical science has advanced by astronomical leaps and bounds (the authoritative account delivered to King Philip VI in 1348 by the esteemed Paris medical facility concluded that the source of the plague was “a major conjunction of three planets in Aquarius”). However, modernity has been a double-edged sword in many ways, for the same technological revolution which allowed for the mass production of vaccines also gave rise to prodigious transmission vectors via a high-volume global transportation network. In Contagion,an infection which originates in Hong Kong takes less than 48 hours to spread to Tokyo, London, Chicago, and St. Paul. The colossal scope of 21st century transportation infrastructure has also lead to a far greater level of interdependence than would have been imaginable even in 1918. Due to unending convoys of food trucks, most major cities such as New York only have around two or three days worth of food at normal consumption levels at any given time, making the effective enforcement of a large-scale quarantine a logistical nightmare.
Compared to most other treatments of a speculative global pandemic, however, Contagion offers a rather rosy picture of the disintegration of a disease-ridden society. In Orson Scott Card’s Hidden Empire, the United States military constructs a continent-wide quarantine about all of Africa to contain the spread of the horrific nictovirus, leading to untold war, starvation, and genocide in the sub-Saharan nations before the blockade ultimately fails and the infection spreads, and who could forget Will Smith’s desperate struggle against the hideous vampiric mutants who roam a planet left desolate by the Krippin virus in the 2007 film I am Legend? We can only hope that such catastrophes remain safely in the scripts of middle-tier sci-fi films.