Nearly 20 years ago, people could get a shot at the doctor’s office and be vaccinated against Lyme disease. But the Lyme vaccine has since been pulled from the market, although pets can still be immunized.

Dr. Philip Baker, executive director of the Connecticut-based American Lyme Disease Foundation, said despite working “reasonably well,” the vaccine was deep-sixed as a result of anti-vaccine hysteria in the late 1990s and early 2000s, combined with lawsuits.

“People claimed the vaccine was giving them Lyme disease, which is ridiculous,” Baker said. “Since they weren’t making much money from the vaccine anyway, they pulled it off the market.’

The human Lyme vaccine, developed by SmithKline, was removed from the market in 2002, after having been available to the general public for about four years. There were numerous complaints about side effects, including arthritis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the Food and Drug Administration did not find a link between the Lyme vaccine and arthritis, SmithKline settled lawsuits about the vaccine.

“I don’t think there’s much enthusiasm from drug manufacturers to do this again,” Baker said. However, there are a few vaccines under development, according to news reports.

Since the last time a vaccine was on the market, the need for a Lyme vaccine has only increased.

Lyme disease cases have skyrocketed compared to the early 2000s, especially in the Northeast. Maine’s Lyme cases have gone from about 200 to 300 per year in the early 2000s to more than 1,000 cases per year since 2011. In 2016, Maine experienced an all-time record of 1,464 Lyme cases. Nationally, about 30,000 cases are reported to the CDC each year.

There’s still no vaccine, although there are multiple efforts to bring one to the market, according to news reports. In 2014 pharmaceutical giant Baxter was working on a Lyme vaccine, but suddenly suspended that effort. However, other researchers are working on a vaccine to target the bacterium that causes Lyme disease – b. Burgdorferi – that’s transmitted to humans by the deer tick.

Baker said the vaccines are difficult to make because the Lyme vaccine works by blocking transmission of the bacteria rather than boosting the human immune system, like a flu shot.

Paula Jackson Jones, a Maine Lyme advocate, said she’s not holding her breath for any of them to make it to the market.

“I wish there was going to be a magic pill, but I don’t think there will be,” Jones said. “Everyone is trying to come up with something that works, to solve this big puzzle. But you better be prepared to wear your bug repellent for a long time.”

Jones pointed out that the vaccine, if it arrives, will likely not protect against other tick-borne diseases, such as babesiosis and anaplasmosis. Anaplasmosis cases are on the rise in Maine, with more than 400 cases through October of last year.

Researchers are now developing vaccines, according to recent NPR and Newsweek stories, although it’s unclear how soon they could make it to market.

The FDA is fast-tracking one of the potential vaccines, which is being developed by Valneva, although the vaccine is still in the early stages and has just completed a small clinical trial with promising results.

Chuck Lubelczyk, a researcher at Maine Medical Center Research Institute, said he believes there’s hope for the vaccine, although it’s probably at least a few years away. Lubelczyk pointed out that the increase in Lyme cases not only means that more people need it, but also that higher profits await the company that brings an effective vaccine to the market.

“Given how widespread Lyme disease is now, especially in the Northeast and upper Midwest, this would be a much better time for it,” Lubelczyk said.

Lyme disease can be cleared up with antibiotics if caught early. Symptoms of an infection can include fatigue, joint pain, fever, headache and nausea. But because a telltale bull’s-eye rash doesn’t appear in all cases, many people don’t know that they’ve been infected and have contracted Lyme disease.

As for why pets can still be immunized, Baker said the pets are receiving a “crude” vaccine – a different vaccine than the SmithKline vaccine given to humans in the early 2000s – that does not qualify under FDA standards to be used on humans.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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