Lyme disease can be tricky to identify. Most people get a rash — but not all. Sometimes it emerges as a “bull’s eye” — but not always. Fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes could indicate Lyme, or a number of other illnesses.
There are even more symptoms that could emerge days to months after a tick bite, including headaches, neck stiffness, arthritis, intermittent pain, heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, problems with short-term memory, nerve pain, or inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s also common for people to never see the tick that bit them, especially since it’s not just the adult ticks but the tiny nymphs that can pass on the bacteria.
So if it’s easy for ticks to get by unnoticed, and easy to miss the symptoms, why isn’t there a vaccine? It turns out there once was — and there could be again if current efforts go as planned. Given that there’s only one vaccine in the works, it’s important for people to learn from the past.
A vaccine for Lyme was released in 1998 by what’s now GlaxoSmithKline. After three doses, the vaccine proved 76 percent effective in the year after people got vaccinated.
It was far from perfect: About 20 percent of people who were vaccinated could still get the disease, the vaccine only protected against one strain of bacteria, and the number of required doses made it less user friendly. But it was a start.
In 1999, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices suggested the LYMErix vaccine for people who lived in areas of high risk and were frequently exposed to ticks. It didn’t recommend the vaccine for people living in non-endemic areas, those with low exposure risk, or those younger than 15 or older than 70.
With a new vaccine on the market, however, people began to assert that it caused a number of side-effects, such as arthritis. A class-action lawsuit was filed against the vaccine manufacturer, and the media published stories of those who said they were harmed by the drug. Even though major follow-up studies failed to find evidence of the vaccine causing harm, it was too late: The public perceived the vaccine as dangerous.
Amid decreased consumer demand and declining sales, the manufacturer voluntarily withdrew its product in 2002.
Dr. Stanley A. Plotkin, an emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, said the public opposition prevented other companies from investing in vaccines against Lyme.
“It’s a situation that has never existed before,” he told The New York Times. “You have a vaccine that works, you know it works, you know the disease is prevalent, but there’s no vaccine on the market, except for dogs.”
Today, however, the European company Valneva is working on a vaccine called VLA15. It’s being tested now, and the company has said it hopes to seek licensing in about five years.
It’s too soon to tell whether the vaccine will be approved (though initial studies have been promising) or whether people skeptical of vaccines will jeopardize the company’s effort. But everyone can learn from the past.
The manufacturer can make sure to involve advocacy groups, ensure they have all the available information and respond meaningfully to their questions. And advocacy groups can push for a safe vaccine while also respecting scientific findings. The country — especially hard-hit areas like Maine — has gone too long without a good solution for preventing Lyme.
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