Would you like to be vaccinated against Lyme Disease? Sure you would; why would anyone want to put up with the complications that might arise from having a Lyme tick bite you–complications that “can lead to arthritis, neurologic problems like meningitis or nerve inflammation, and sometimes even heart problems”?
Yes, a vaccine against Lyme Disease would be wonderful. But there is a snag, you see: You can’t get a vaccine against Lyme Disease, because the anti-vaccination movement won’t let you have one:
Developed in the ‘90s by pharmaceutical company SmithKline Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline), LYMErix was the only licensed Lyme disease vaccine on the market. The vaccine was based on one of the surface proteins expressed by the disease-causing bacterium, which was used to evoke an immune response in the individual. Clinical trials involving more than 10,000 individuals found that LYMErix reduced new infections in adults by close to 80% and conferred protection to 100% of children. Additionally, no serious side-effects were observed.
Despite these positive results, the vaccine was withdrawn from the U.S. market in 2002 due to a combination of factors. Although it was considered a cost-effective approach for Lyme disease, its high cost resulted in slow uptake in clinical settings and reluctance of insurance companies to cough up for it. This, combined with the emergence of a hypothesis that the vaccine sparked immune responses that resulted in arthritis, caused the vaccine’s popularity to plummet.
The idea that the vaccine could cause this “autoimmune arthritis” stemmed from a hypothesis, named the molecular mimicry hypothesis, which suggested that the protein used in the vaccine displayed similarity to a protein found in the human body, but was still different enough to be recognized as foreign by the immune system. This would mean that, alongside attacking the foreign bacterial protein, the immune system would also start targeting the normal human protein and thus lead to an autoimmune reaction.
Within just one year of the vaccine reaching the market, reports of adverse effects began popping up left, right and center, conveniently mostly about musculoskeletal pain or swelling as would be expected in patients suffering from arthritis. The media then soon cottoned onand began running sob stories on personal experiences that were guaranteed to draw in readers, fuel fear and spark public outcry.
This was enough to spur investigations and safety surveillance, both of which failed to find any evidence for either the molecular mimicry hypothesis nor any spikes in arthritis diagnoses. Yet with an increasing number of lawsuits filed against the manufacturers and its decreasing support among the public, encouraged by anti-vaccination groups, the vaccine was pulled from shelves.
So if you end up getting sick because of a bite from a Lyme tick, you know whom to thank for your woes.