Mental health

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)

Zika is here to stay and remains a significant public health challenge

WHO/PAHO

18 November 2016 -- Zika virus and associated consequences remain a significant public health challenge requiring intense action, but they no longer represent a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Get the WHO Zika app for health care workers and the general public

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WHO’s Zika app aims to provide essential information on Zika virus disease and its potential complications. Designed primarily for health care workers and responders, the app can also be a source of real-time information for the general public.

Download and use the app on IOS or android and have easy-to-use information at your fingertips. Access WHO’s technical guidance and other useful resources, follow ongoing Zika related-research and development, stay updated about the latest news, and follow the international response to Zika. New content, including trainings will be added to the app in weeks to come.

What is Guillain–Barré syndrome?

WHO/PAHO /A.Waak

In Guillain-Barré syndrome, the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. The syndrome can affect the nerves that control muscle movement as well as those that transmit feelings of pain, temperature and touch. This can result in muscle weakness and loss of sensation in the legs and/or arms.

New guidance released

Pregnant women in Colombia wait for their prenatal check-ups.
EPA/S. Mendoza

WHO has released new guidance for health care workers and authorities on microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, as well as guidance on psychosocial support for pregnant women and families in relation to Zika virus and the current health emergency.

WHO announces a public health emergency of international concern

WHO/C.Black

5 February 2016 -- WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 1 February after a substantial spike in cases of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome in the Americas. These cases are strongly suspected to be linked to Zika virus, a mosquito transmitted disease that has spread to more than 25 countries and territories in the region. This page links all WHO information to its response on this Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

The cause of Guillain-Barré cannot always be determined, but it is often triggered by an infection (such as HIV, dengue, or influenza) and less commonly by immunization, surgery, or trauma.

Researchers are studying a potential - but unproven - link between the surge in GBS cases and Zika virus infection.

Symptoms typically last a few weeks, with most individuals recovering without long-term, severe neurological complications.

The first symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome include weakness or tingling sensations. They usually start in the legs, and can spread to the arms and face. For some people, these symptoms can lead to paralysis of the legs, arms, or muscles in the face. In 20-25% of people, the chest muscles are affected, making it hard to breathe.

Severe cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome are rare, but can result in near-total paralysis. These cases are considered life-threatening, and affected individuals are typically treated in intensive-care units.

Most people recover fully from even the most severe cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, although some continue to experience weakness.


Key messages

  • Severe cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome are rare, but can result in near-total paralysis.
  • Most people recover fully from even the most severe cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Diagnosis is based on symptoms, findings on neurological examination including diminished or loss of deep-tendon reflexes and lumbar puncture. Other tests, such as blood tests, may be required to identify the cause of trigger of GBS.

Researchers are studying a potential - but unproven - link between the surge in GBS cases and Zika virus infection.

There is no known cure for GBS. But treatments can help improve symptoms of GBS and shorten its duration. GBS patients are usually hospitalized so that they can be monitored closely. Supportive care includes monitoring of breathing, heartbeat and blood pressure. In cases where a patient's ability to breathe is impaired, he or she is usually put on a ventilator and monitored for complications, which can include abnormal heart beat, infections, blood clots, and high or low blood pressure.

Given the autoimmune nature of the disease, its acute phase is typically treated with immunotherapy, such as plasma exchange to remove antibodies from the blood or intravenous immunoglobulin. It is most often beneficial when initiated 7 to 14 days after symptoms appear. In cases where muscle weakness persists after the acute phase of the illness, patients may require rehabilitation services to strengthen their muscles and restore movement.


Key messages

  • People with Guillain-Barré syndrome should be treated and monitored; some may need intensive care. Treatment includes supportive care and some immunological therapies.

This page links all WHO information to its response on the Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Contact information

Click here to contact the Mental Health Programme.