Every human being comes equipped with an immune system that traps and eliminates any bad guys—viruses, bacteria or unhealthy cells—that show up in our bloodstream. In rare cases, however, the immune system itself goes on a rampage, attacking the body it was designed to protect.
There are many immune system disorders, including autoimmune diseases and even allergies. But one condition, Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), has been getting extra attention this spring and summer. That’s in part because health experts are exploring a possible connection between the notorious Zika virus and GBS.
People with GBS experience muscle weakness—sometimes to the point of paralysis—and in extreme cases, death. Most people with the syndrome will first notice “weakness, numbness or tingling in the arms or legs that evolves fairly quickly,” said University of Minnesota Health Neurologist Jeffrey Allen, MD. “Pain can be a part of it. Sometimes, people will develop double vision, facial weakness or feel short of breath.”
Still, GBS is a rare disease that only affects 1-2 out of every 100,000 people in the United States, though health experts have recently noted a slightly higher rate of the disease in French Polynesia, South American and other hot spots for the mosquito-borne Zika virus. The Centers for Disease Control is now investigating whether this is a link between the two diseases.
GBS is triggered when a person’s infection-fighting cells target his or her own peripheral nervous system. Certain infections have a molecular structure similar to that of our peripheral nerves. An immune system trained to fight those infections may mistake the nerve cells for infectious agents. Experts suspect the Zika virus may in some way resemble nerve cells, thereby triggering immune system misfires in people who have been exposed to the disease.
Research into a connection between Zika and GBS “is still early in the story,” Allen said. “But where Zika is prevalent, there’s a clear increased incidence of GBS in people who develop the Zika virus. So there’s a likely connection.”
That’s no reason for alarm, Allen added.
“If you live in Minnesota, you’re OK. The type of mosquito that transmits Zika virus is not present in the northern part of the United States,” Allen said. If you live elsewhere in the United States, application of mosquito repellent will help you protect yourself. It is also possible to sexually transmit the Zika virus, though the possibility of contracting the disease that way is remote.
The best advice for someone who suspects they may have GBS? Go immediately to a doctor specially trained in treating the condition, Allen said. The sooner it is diagnosed the sooner treatment can begin. Treatment for GBS includes plasma exchange or high-dose immunoglobulin therapy. Especially when started early in the disease course, these treatments have been shown to improve the outcome in those affected by GBS.
“With any rare disease it’s important to see a specialist who is familiar with the condition. The GBS-CIDP Foundation International, a well-established patient-advocacy group, has designated 22 medical centers around the world as Centers of Excellence, where physicians are specially trained and there are resources to take care of such a complicated disease. University of Minnesota Health is one of those centers.”