The vaccine was pulled from the market, despite evidence finding it was safe
Lyme has quickly become one of the most common infectious diseases in America, with many as 300,000 people infected every year. And public health officials fear the bacterial infection, which jumps from ticks to humans, will only spread farther and faster as climate change makes more parts of the US habitable for ticks.
Lyme can be treated with antibiotics. And there are many ways to prevent tick bites. But there’s no vaccine available if you want extra protection against the disease (unless you’re a dog).
Yet in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a vaccine called LYMErix was sold to prevent between 76 and 92 percent of infections. Hundreds of thousands of people got it — until vaccine fear knocked it off the market.
The LYMErix story is worth retelling today. It’s a stark reminder of how anti-vaccine mania of the past few decades is leaving us all more susceptible to disease.
The Lyme vaccine was effective
Lyme first appeared in the US seemingly out of nowhere, spreading between ticks and people in Connecticut.
By the 1990s, it was possible to be infected with Lyme from a tick bite in much of the northeastern US — and there were around 15,000 confirmed cases a year. (Today, there are more than 35,000 confirmed or probable cases of Lyme each year and many more cases that go completely unreported.)
Recognizing the increasing public health hazard, the drug manufacturer SmithKline Beecham (now called GlaxoSmithKline) developed a vaccine that targeted the outer protein of the bacteria that causes Lyme. The Food and Drug Administration approved it in 1998.
The vaccine worked by targeting the bacteria while it was still inside the tick’s body, the website History of Vaccines explains. The bacteria would be neutralized before the tick ever had the chance to transfer the bacteria into the human body.
LYMErix wasn’t a perfect vaccine, as Gregory Poland, a Mayo Clinic vaccine researcher, explained in a 2011 retrospective in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. It required three doses over the course of the year, and was not approved for people under age 15. It was optional, and doctors had a hard time assessing whom to recommend it to (there were few maps of Lyme-carrying ticks’ range at the time). And the vaccine only protected against the North American strain of Lyme. Finally, it was somewhat expensive at $50 a dose, and it was not universally covered by health insurance.
But it was effective, preventing Lyme in up to 90 percent of the people who were vaccinated will all three doses, with few side effects. And at first, the vaccine was pretty popular; about 1.5 million doses were injected before 2000.
Another way science-rejecting dimwits hurt people.