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The Deadly Autoimmune Disease — Caused by Vaccines?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

meningoencephalitis in dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Granulomatous meningoencephalitis (GME) is an inflammatory autoimmune disease of the central nervous system that progresses rapidly and is life-threatening
  • Symptoms of GME can include sudden blindness, drowsiness, circling, seizures, behavior changes, weakness in the legs, head pressing and headaches/migraines
  • GME is likely caused by an abnormal immune response to an infectious agent, such as certain vaccines
  • Conventional treatment for dogs with GME involves immune-suppressing drugs and sometimes radiation therapy is also used; dogs with the ophthalmic form of GME receive both topical and oral corticosteroids in addition to oral prednisone
  • A more integrative treatment approach is to safely reduce and ultimately eliminate most or all medications while providing hyperbaric oxygen therapy and appropriate supplement protocols depending on the dog’s symptoms and overall health status

Granulomatous meningoencephalitis (GME) is an inflammatory autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the tissues of the central nervous system (CNS). The inflammation creates granulomas, which are clusters of cells that form as the immune system attempts to build a barrier against what it perceives as foreign substances.

Granulomas can develop in a single location, multiple locations, or throughout the CNS. The cell clusters encircle blood vessels in white brain matter and the spinal cord, causing neurologic and ophthalmic symptoms. GME usually occurs in small breed dogs between the ages of 6 months and 10 years and is more often seen in females. It is a rapidly progressing, life-threatening disease. There are three types of GME:

  • Focal, which is limited to one location in the CNS
  • Disseminated or multifocal, involving multiple locations
  • Ophthalmic, which involves the optic nerve and eye

Dogs can develop more than one type of GME. With focal GME, the onset is slower, taking three to six months on average, while the disseminated form strikes more rapidly, in about two to six months. The ophthalmic form often shows up as sudden permanent blindness.

The disseminated form of GME has the worst prognosis, with one study demonstrating the median survival time at just eight days after diagnosis.

Symptoms of GME

The symptoms of GME depend on the form the disease takes as described above, as well as its location in your dog’s body. The ocular form affects the eye region; the disseminated form affects the brain and/or spinal cord. The focal form affects either the brain or the spinal cord. Common symptoms include:

Blindness

Seizures

Drowsiness

Behavior changes

Circling

Weakness in the hind legs or all four legs

Head pressing

Headaches/migraines

A dog is head pressing when he compulsively pushes the top of his head against a stationary object, for example, a wall, couch, corner or another hard surface. It’s a very deliberate action that occurs for extended periods of time, or repeatedly. Often, the dog will push continuously, moving along the surface with his head pressed against it until something stops him.

Headaches or even migraines are quite likely also a symptom of this terrible condition, and in my experience with these patients, there is clearly intense head pain.

Possible Causes of GME

Most veterinarians consider GME to be idiopathic, meaning a cause hasn’t been identified. However, many integrative and holistic vets believe the disease is caused by an abnormal immune response to an infectious agent.

Similarly, while the conventional veterinary community doesn’t acknowledge a link between autoimmune diseases and vaccines, holistic and integrative vets see a cause-and-effect relationship between certain vaccines and the subsequent development of autoimmune disorders in pets.

One of my patients, a female Boston Terrier, was happy and healthy at two years of age until she received a vaccine against Lyme disease. Over the next few weeks, she started shaking her head and losing her balance. She was stumbling a lot, and she also started vomiting.

The balance problem and disorientation worsened over the next week to the point where she was falling down when she tried to walk. She also experienced rear limb weakness, her lymph nodes were enlarged, and she developed a head tilt and tremors.

A neurologist diagnosed her with GME. In my professional opinion, the Lyme vaccine is what triggered the disease in this previously healthy patient.

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Diagnosing GME

If your dog is displaying symptoms of GME, you should get her to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Your vet will perform a basic blood panel and urinalysis. A spinal tap will also be necessary, which unfortunately means your pet will require general anesthesia. The spinal tap will look for inflammatory cells and changes in spinal fluid that are characteristic of GME.

Additional testing is usually performed to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms, including viral encephalitis from distemper or rabies, parasitic encephalitis from toxoplasmosis, fungal encephalitis, breed-specific inflammatory diseases, and cancer.

While less costly computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans aren’t particularly beneficial in diagnosing GME, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan can visualize the brain so clearly that it is considered nearly a confirming test for GME. If the diagnosis is still questionable after a spinal tap, often an MRI is recommended.

The only way to definitively diagnose GME is through a biopsy of the brain, which is never done on living patients. That is why most confirming diagnoses don’t occur until after an animal has succumbed to the disease.

Treatment Options

Because GME is thought to be caused by an immune system overreaction, conventional treatment of disseminated GME involves suppressing the immune system with corticosteroids (e.g., prednisone). Sometimes a chemotherapy agent like azathioprine is combined with prednisone to lengthen remission time. Needless to say, these very powerful drugs have potentially devastating side effects long term.

If the GME is localized, sometimes radiation therapy is attempted. However, radiation of the head or face can cause abnormal blood clotting, which can lead to seizures. If the eyes are included in the field of radiation, cataracts and dry eye are common side effects. However, a certain percentage of cases of focal GME have reportedly completely resolved after radiation therapy.

If seizures develop as a symptom of GME, medication will also be given to control those. For dogs with a severe form of GME, immediate intensive care and hospitalization are often required.

Dogs with the ophthalmic form of GME are also treated conventionally with oral prednisone, plus topical corticosteroids in some cases. Any eye disorder like glaucoma that results from the ophthalmic form of GME will also need to be treated.

My protocol for treating GME is quite different from the conventional methods I just discussed. Often drugs must be given initially to control the acute inflammation occurring in the central nervous system. But as soon as your dog is stable, I recommend finding an integrative practitioner who will work to reduce the number of drugs needed to maintain a good quality of life for your pet.

At the same time, I recommend digging for an underlying trigger that may have prompted the immune system meltdown. With the GME patient I discussed earlier, I suspected her recent Lyme vaccine was the trigger. I first treated her with a homeopathic vaccine detox agent and a natural supplement that helped her body rid itself of the heavy metals, including mercury and aluminum that are often included in vaccine formulations.

Next, I slowly replaced the prednisone she was taking with a custom-compounded plant sterol. I also added several supplements, including B vitamins. I added alpha-lipoic acid, N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), inositol, and glutathione, which helped support her peripheral and central nervous system.

Over an eight-week period, I tapered her off all powerful drugs and monitored her progress by rechecking her biologic reflexes and bloodwork every few weeks. That’s a very important step, because recurrence of the immune-mediated response could have happened at any point, requiring further aggressive treatment.

Fortunately for my little patient, in a matter of months (in fact, before her third birthday) she made a full recovery from her disseminated GME. And unlike most conventionally treated dogs, she never had to take daily doses of medications, including prednisone or other toxic drugs.

One very promising non-toxic therapy that more and more veterinarians are embracing to rapidly treat GME is hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). I believe this adjunctive therapy should be instituted for all GME patients as soon as possible. The most difficult aspect of this remarkable treatment is finding a practitioner or facility that has access to this expensive piece of medical equipment.

 

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