Background

Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain that leads to a person having seizures (disruptions to the electrical activity in the brain). The cause of epilepsy in most people is unknown, however it can caused by genetic conditions, brain injury or infection, hypoxic insult at birth, brain tumours or neurodegenerative diseases. It can develop at any stage of life but is more commonly diagnosed in childhood, adolescence and in adults over 60 years of age. Approximately 250,000 Australians (or 1% of) are currently living with epilepsy.

Seizures of epilepsy can be controlled with anti-epileptic medication/s as well as by recognising and managing their triggers. Common triggers can include lack of sleep, stress, illness, hormonal fluctuations, drug and alcohol use or photosensitivity.

In general, vaccination is recommended for individuals with epilepsy.

While, in rare instances, vaccines may trigger a seizure, it is important to note that infections, including vaccine-preventable diseases (e.g., measles, influenza or COVID-19) can trigger seizures in individuals with epilepsy (including status epilepticus) therefore a risk/benefit assessment is important when planning vaccination.

Any seizures occurring within 14 days of receiving a vaccine (including live-attenuated vaccines and inactivated vaccines) are defined as vaccine-proximate seizures (VPS). Most types of epilepsy do not have a high risk of VPS. However, there are some genetic epilepsies with a strong association with VPS. These include Dravet syndrome and genetic epilepsy with febrile seizures plus (GEFS+).

Dravet Syndrome

Dravet syndrome is a rare and severe form of infantile onset epilepsy with a prevalence of 1 in 15,500 – 40,000 children, associated with a genetic mutation, usually a new/non inherited (de novo) change in the sodium channel gene (SCN1A). Children with Dravet syndrome classically present in the first year of life with prolonged febrile seizures. These seizures can be hemiclonic (one-sided) or generalised tonic-clonic seizures and sustained such as in status epilepticus (SE). Their first seizure may be associated with their primary series of immunisation, often their 4 or 6 month vaccines, with approximately 30% of these children experiencing these seizures as vaccine proximate. They can then develop refractory (uncontrolled) afebrile seizures, particularly myoclonic seizures, and a plateau or regression in their development. VPS in infants, particularly if prolonged or SE, should raise suspicion of Dravet syndrome.  

The first seizure is vaccine-proximate in approximately 30% of children with Dravet syndrome. Immunisation can lead to an earlier age of seizure onset in children with Dravet syndrome. However, there is no difference in developmental or seizure outcomes in children who had a first seizure proximate to immunisation compared to children with seizures unrelated to immunisation.

Genetic epilepsy with febrile seizures plus (GEFS+)

Genetic epilepsy with febrile seizures plus (GEFS+) describes a spectrum of seizure disorders of varying severity. A diagnosis of GEFS+ is usually made in individuals who are experiencing febrile seizures beyond the usual age range of up to 6 years, family members across different generations with a history of different types of epilepsy involving febrile seizures and/or recurrent afebrile seizures.

As with Dravet syndrome, individuals with GEFS+ may experience VPS.

Immunisation

Whilst vaccination is generally recommended in individuals with Dravet syndrome and other genetic epilepsies, there is still a well-reported association with febrile seizures/SE following vaccination. This is more common within the first 48 hours following an inactivated vaccine (e.g., influenza, COVID-19, Infanrix hexa) and 5-10 days post live-attenuated vaccines (such as the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine given at 12 months of age).

Recommendations and management

Children with Dravet syndrome, GEFS+ or other children at risk of vaccine-proximate seizures should be referred to a specialist immunisation clinic for assessment prior to vaccination.

Vaccination requires a comprehensive discussion between the patient’s family and the treating medical teams, usually both immunisation experts and neurologists, as well as a clear plan to ensure that vaccines can be administered under careful medical supervision [refer to protocol in resources]. This includes admission for immunisation under observation and sometimes the prophylactic administration of paracetamol and benzodiazepines. Whilst there is no published data evaluating prophylactic measures to prevent seizures in children with Dravet syndrome undergoing immunisations, there is anecdotal evidence that this can reduce the rate of immunisation-related seizures and SE.

Individuals with stable epilepsy, who have not had a previous VPS and whose type of epilepsy is not strongly associated with VPS can generally be vaccinated safely in the community. However, where there are questions or concerns about the safety of vaccination in an individual, a referral to a specialist immunisation clinic could be considered.

Resources:

Authors: Georgina Lewis (Clinical Manager, SAEFVIC, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute), Nigel Crawford (Director, SAEFVIC, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute), Margie Danchin (Paediatrician, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and Royal Children’s Hospital) and Gabriel Dabscheck and Katherine Howell (Neurologists, Royal Children’s Hospital)

Reviewed by: Georgina Lewis (Clinical Manager, SAEFVIC, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute), Rachael McGuire (MVEC Education Nurse Coordinator), Francesca Machingaifa (MVEC Education Nurse Coordinator) and Gabriel Dabscheck (Neurologist, Royal Children’s Hospital)

Date: October 18, 2022

Materials in this section are updated as new information and vaccines become available. The Melbourne Vaccine Education Centre (MVEC) staff regularly reviews materials for accuracy.

You should not consider the information in this site to be specific, professional medical advice for your personal health or for your family’s personal health. For medical concerns, including decisions about vaccinations, medications and other treatments, you should always consult a healthcare professional.