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Narcolepsy fiasco during swine flu outbreak spurs COVID vaccine fears in Sweden

Take a vaccine developed in haste? Never again, says Meissa Chebbi, who, like hundreds of other young Swedes suffered debilitating narcolepsy after a mass vaccination campaign against the 2009-2010 swine flu pandemic.

The experience has shaken Swedes’ confidence in any future vaccine against the new coronavirus, compounding fears about unknown long-term side effects.

“I will never recommend that,” 21-year-old Chebbi tells AFP when asked about taking a speedily developed vaccine. “Unless you really have to take it because of life-threatening circumstances.”

The Swedish case highlights the complex task governments face in rolling out vaccines against the coronavirus, especially at a time when rabid social media misinformation is feeding skepticism in state institutions and even about the disease itself.

The trauma over vaccines is particularly notable in Sweden, which normally boasts participation of more than 90 percent in its voluntary children’s vaccination program.

But a recent survey conducted by the Novus polling institute suggested that 26 percent of Swedes do not plan to take any of the COVID-19 vaccines being developed and 28 percent are undecided.

Forty-six percent said they would get a jab.

Of those opposed, 87 percent said it was due to fears over as-yet unknown side effects.

Health authorities in the Scandinavian country in 2009 urged the public to voluntarily take the Pandemrix vaccine against swine flu, made by British drug company GlaxoSmithKline.

More than 60 percent heeded the call — the highest level in the world.

But Chebbi and hundreds of others, primarily children and young adults under 30, were later diagnosed with narcolepsy as a side effect of the vaccine.

A link was eventually established to an adjuvant, or booster, in the Pandemrix vaccine which was intended to strengthen the immune response.

Narcolepsy is a chronic disorder of the nervous system that causes excessive and often uncontrollable drowsiness.

“I have sleep attacks all the time in all kinds of situations and at inappropriate times… In my food, at job interviews, at lectures, seminars, at university. I’ve fallen asleep at my workplace, I fall asleep on buses and everywhere,” Chebbi says.

“It has destroyed my life.”

AFP

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