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AFTERSHOCKS: Emelie Olsson developed narcolepsy after being immunized in 2009 with the Pandemrix H1N1 swine flu vaccine.
INTS Kalin/Reuters/Landov
AFTERSHOCKS: Emelie Olsson developed narcolepsy after being immunized in 2009 with the Pandemrix H1N1 swine flu vaccine.

Drowsy drug

Science | Scientists explain why a swine flu vaccine caused narcolepsy in Europe

Issue: "The Battle for Africa," Feb. 8, 2014

A strange thing happened to dozens of European kids who received a vaccine against the 2009 pandemic swine flu. They began falling asleep abruptly and unexpectedly in the middle of the day. Research into the problem revealed that in rare cases the Pandemrix swine flu shot had triggered the onset of narcolepsy, an incurable sleep disorder. 

In December, scientists from the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif., announced they had discovered the likely explanation: “molecular mimicry.” A protein found in the H1N1 swine flu virus partially resembles hypocretin, a human hormone responsible for maintaining wakefulness. The hormone is produced by certain brain neurons. After genetically susceptible people either contracted swine flu or received the vaccine (which contains the virus), their immune cells became primed to attack not only swine flu but hypocretin-producing neurons. The end result was narcolepsy—among both vaccinated Europeans and unvaccinated Chinese who had contracted the flu.

The vaccine, made by GlaxoSmithKline, has been discontinued and was never used in the United States. Out of 30 million people vaccinated in Europe, the drugmaker has counted about 900 associated cases of narcolepsy. The problem seems more common among children. (In Finland, about 1 out of every 16,000 vaccinated children developed the disorder.) The Stanford researchers and their collaborators, publishing in Science Translational Medicine, say their study confirms for the first time that narcolepsy is an autoimmune disease.

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The government of the United Kingdom recently acknowledged the link between the GSK vaccine and the sleep disorder. Lawyers there have filed a class-action suit to demand compensation for 50 vaccinated people, mostly children, who developed narcolepsy—up to $1.6 million apiece.

Hidden plague

Handout

New statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate three major sexually transmitted diseases continue to spread in the United States, despite efforts to raise awareness. In 2012, the rate of gonorrhea rose 4 percent, and the rate of primary and secondary syphilis rose 11 percent. Chlamydia increased slightly to 1.42 million cases—the most-reported disease in the United States.

Health experts are worried because most cases of gonorrhea and chlamydia occur among people under 25, and both diseases can cause infertility in women. About three out of four new cases of syphilis occur among homosexual men, raising their chances of transmitting HIV. —D.J.D.

Duped database

Bluberries/iStock

A long-term health database of adolescents that has formed the basis for over 1,900 scholarly articles may be skewed by young “jokesters” who lied to scientists about their sexual orientation. Over 70 percent of teenagers who originally claimed to have same-sex attractions in surveys for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health identified as exclusively heterosexual by the time they were young adults. 

Writing in Archives of Sexual Behavior in December, researchers suggest many of these teens either falsely reported same-sex attraction as a joke, or didn’t understand what “romantic attraction” meant. The erroneous survey results have implications for subsequent studies that used the data to measure the physical and mental health of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth.

Based on the same database, researchers recently found that 36 young women who consistently claimed to be virgins also admitted they had given birth. —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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