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The Lyme Disease Crisis Could Have Been Avoided

The increase in cases of Lyme disease is more evidence that shying away from vaccinations today can cause problems decades down the line.

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According to the Center for Disease Control, there were just under 20,000 reported cases of Lyme disease confirmed in the U.S. in 2006. By 2015, the number of reported cases rose to around 28,500 — an increase of 42 percent. If you look just five years back from 2006, between 2001 and 2017, the CDC’s data indicates that the number of reported Lyme cases more than doubled. But it’s not just reported cases. Estimates suggest that as many as 300,000 people may be infected in 2018. Why the drastic increase? Climate change has increased the range of the ticks, notably the Deer Ticks (sometimes also known Blackleg Ticks), that carry the disease. Also, a lyme disease drug got pulled off the market after anti-vaccine activists insisted that it increased arthritis risk.

The name of the lyme vaccine was LYMErix and when it was approved by the FDA in 1998 it prevented the disease in 76 to 92 percent of those treated after three injections.  When LYMErix initially hit the market, hundreds of thousands of people got the vaccine, even though it required three separate injections that cost $50 each. Despite being a tad pricey, inconvenient, and only approved for people over 15-years-old, LYMErix was still understood to be a largely successful drug. The vaccine neutralized the bacteria that caused Lyme while it was still inside the tick’s body, an unusual but effective approach.

The same year that LYMErix hit the market, a now-retracted study linked autism to vaccines for afflictions like the measles or mumps. Simultaneously, some people were beginning to report that LYMErix was causing arthritis in hamsters. A study popped up suggesting that certain people might be predisposed to developing arthritis after taking the drug. Media reports proliferated and anti-vaccine activists smelled blood. 

Naturally, the placebo effect took hold. People who had been vaccinated with LYMErix began to complain that it was the cause of their joint pain. That was not the case. Later studies found that the number of people who had been vaccinated with LYMErix and developed joint pain was totally consistent with the number of people who had never been vaccinated for Lyme and developed joint pain or arthritis anyway. However, the damage was done to the vaccine’s reputation.

Still, it was too late. Due to a very public lawsuit against GlaxoSmithKline, the company that developed LYMErix, and rapidly decreasing sales in the wake of the controversy, the drug stopped making enough money for its manufacturer. In 1999, more than one million people took LYMErix according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. By 2001, that number had dropped to about 10,000.

The anti-vax movement, which remains vocal, may have set the fight against a disease that is very literally creeping across the country back a decade. Even though there are a small handful of companies that are now developing a vaccine against Lyme disease, it will be years before those drugs finish safety trials and hit the market. Meanwhile, the number of reported cases of Lyme disease continues to climb.

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As of right now, the best anyone can say is always use insect repellent and always check for ticks after walking in the woods or in tall grass—great.