Time’s a ticking on a Lyme disease vaccine

Ticks are everywhere. Be it scurrying up our pantlegs as we putter in the garden or hitching a ride in on the dog’s fur, time outdoors means fraternizing with the enemy. We all know the drill: Wear long, light-colored clothes perfumed with permethrin. Do a tick check upon returning indoors. Beware the bull’s eye rash (not present in all cases). Lyme disease, spread by infected deer ticks, can cause arthritis, neurological problems, issues with memory and concentration and heart complications. The threat of it takes more than a little fun out of the great outdoors.

Lyme is the most common vector-borne disease in the country, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, about 30,000 cases are reported to the agency by state health departments. However, health insurance records suggest a more staggering figure – an estimated 476,000 Americans diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease annually. Even though some patients are treated as a precautionary measure and do not actually have Lyme, it’s still a lot of people. In Maine in 2018, the incidence rate was 105 cases per 100,000 residents.

Ironically, man’s best friend can get vaccinated against Lyme disease, but man cannot. A human vaccine, LYMErix, hit the market in 1998. The elective three-dose vaccine reduced new Lyme infections in vaccinated adults by nearly 80 percent. However, LYMErix was discontinued in 2002 following reports of adverse autoimmune effects, including arthritis. Sales plummeted and lawsuits mounted. Yet, scientists never found a link in human recipients between the vaccine and the reported side effects that gained such wide attention. Arthritis occurred at the same rate in vaccinated individuals as it did in the vaccinated. So today we have a lot more Lyme, and no vaccine.

That could change in the near future. Valneva and Pfizer have developed a vaccine that is currently in the second phase of human trials. Should it prove safe and effective, it will be another tool in the Lyme disease prevention arsenal. Meanwhile, MassBiologics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School has developed and is trialing a seasonal shot to protect against the disease.

It remains to be seen how the public will receive any new vaccine. But for those worried that a pinhead-sized arachnid could cause a world of problems, it would be welcome news indeed.

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