Fifteen years ago, I got what was then the new vaccine to ward off Lyme disease. Administered in a series of shots, it was called LYMErix and was manufactured by SmithKline Beacham. Having written pieces on the devastating impacts of Lyme disease when it is not caught promptly with antibiotics, I went for the injections as soon as I read about LYMErix having been approved for use.
Since then, my wife — working carefully with tweezers — has pulled at least 30 ticks off me over the years. (I take precautions to avoid them but these tiny creatures are so ubiquitous and stealthy.) I’ve never had Lyme disease since I got the vaccine. Is there a connection? Who knows.
Several years after getting the shots, I read LYMErix was being taken off the market after complaints of adverse reactions some people had, notably arthritis. Unfortunate, I thought; medicines often have side effects.
So I was very interested last month listening to a series on National Public Radio about Lyme disease and, specifically, a segment that featured the physician who is credited with uncovering Lyme disease. He strongly criticized the disappearance of LYMErix.
The series, “Living With Lyme,” was produced by WBUR, the NPR station in Boston. This segment was titled, “Why Your Dog Can Get Vaccinated Against Lyme Disease And You Can’t.” You can view a transcript at wbur.org/2012/06/27/lyme-vaccine.
The piece began with a dog named Ned getting a shot to immunize him against Lyme disease, with his owner, up in Cape Cod, saying, “If there were a vaccine” for people, he presumed “our doctors would be suggesting it to us” because especially “on the Cape and the islands … it’s a horrendous plague!” That’s been the situation on eastern Long Island, too.
“Actually, modern science has given us a human vaccine against Lyme disease,” the WBUR report declared. “Too bad we don’t use it.”
It then presented Dr. Allen Steere, who stated: “Lyme disease is the only infection I know of where we have a safe and effective vaccine but it’s not available to the public.” Dr. Steere, then at Yale and now at Massachusetts General Hospital, identified and named Lyme disease in 1975, and led the research effort on LYMErix. He believes that “finding a biological pathway to vaccinate against Lyme was a major milestone,” said the report.
Dr. Steere said: “Lyme disease was epidemic in certain locations, particularly in the northeastern United States. So here was the possibility of really changing that.”
He was supported by Dr. Gregory Poland, a vaccinologist at the Mayo Clinic. He linked the manufacturer’s decision to stop making the vaccine to “a number of East Coast lawyers who started putting together class-action lawsuits” and to “anti-vaccine advocacy groups.”
The WBUR report said: “The clinical data did not back up any” of their charges that the vaccination was unsafe. “The trials had not shown such side effects. The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control looked into the claims, and then continued to recommend that people exposed to tick-infested areas get the vaccine. But it was too late. Sales had plummeted.”
Dr. Poland said that “we know scientifically how to develop a vaccine that would protect against all this human misery. And yet, for these societal and cultural reasons, not scientific reasons,” it won’t be available “in the foreseeable future in the U.S.”
In Europe, meanwhile, development of another vaccine for Lyme disease is underway. Manufactured by Baxter Healthcare Corporation, trials are in their final phase.
As for LYMErix, an Internet search yields some sharp criticism. For example, there is a transcript of a meeting in 2001 of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research that included a nurse named Jenny Marra testifying that LYMErix was “destroying lives … They thought they were protecting themselves from a horrible disease. Instead they’ve gotten an even worse disease.” Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of the Public Citizen Health Research Group, scored the “extraordinarily reckless promotion of this vaccine” and spoke of “questions about the benefit-risk ratio.”
With years of experience with Lyme disease in this region, Eva Haughie, president of the Manorville-based Empire State Lyme Disease Association, commented last week: “Many question whether a vaccine can be truly both effective and safe.”
I vividly recall the emergence of a vaccine against polio. It eradicated that terrible scourge. What about the now the most common tick-borne malady in the Northern Hemisphere, Lyme disease?