A decade after a vaccine for Lyme disease was pulled from the market amid poor sales and public controversy, New Englanders need to ask: How long should we allow a largely preventable disease to continue unabated? In most years, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 20,000 cases of the tick-borne bacterial infection are diagnosed in the United States. A vaccine would be especially useful in New England, the mid-Atlantic states, Minnesota, and Wisconsin — which account for more than 94 percent of all Lyme disease cases. Yet as WBUR reported in a recent series on Lyme disease, dogs can be vaccinated against Lyme disease, but people cannot.
The drug firm then known as SmithKline Beecham got FDA approval in 1998 for a human vaccine called Lymerix, but experts offered inconsistent advice about who should get the vaccine. Never-proven claims that the Lyme vaccine caused arthritis and other symptoms scared off some patients and raised the possibility of big legal judgments. For the manufacturer, the limited sales didn’t justify the risks.
But with a decade of hindsight, people in the areas most affected by Lyme disease deserve a second look. Not everyone will be accepting; opposition to the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine has become entrenched among some parents, even as the research that initially fueled it has been discredited. Yet it’s precisely because of that controversy that medical authorities, the media, and the general public may weigh claims by vaccine critics more carefully.
As Lyme disease cases continue to emerge, public health authorities in New England need to lead the drive to bring existing vaccines back — or promote research on new and better ones.