Why Isn't There a Lyme Disease Vaccine?

Last week we posted a story about the huge increase in tick-transmitted disease in Vermont.

 “And why is there no vaccine or obvious research on these diseases,??????” asked a reader in the comments below the post

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Good question. We decided to take a look.

The short answer —there used to be a vaccine for Lyme disease.

In 1998 SmithKline Beecham released a vaccine called LYMERx. It was 78 percent effective in preventing Lyme disease. The drug was withdrawn in 2002 because of poor sales and bad press coverage related to lawsuits claiming the drug caused arthritis. Since then there hasn’t been much news about a vaccine until two months ago.

Valneva, a French company, announced in March positive results from a Phase 1 trial of its Lyme disease vaccine. A Phase 2 trial will start later this year. Even if the trials are successful, it could be years before the drug becomes available. Valneva's vaccine won’t prevent other tick-transmitted diseases such as babesiosis and anaplasmosis.

While there has been little news about a human vaccine against Lyme disease there has been ongoing research on an oral vaccine for the rodents that spread the disease to the ticks. If vaccinated rodents don't transmit the disease to ticks, the ticks won't infect humans. 

Research by a New York State consortium known as “The Tick Project” seeks to limit disease transmission at the neighborhood level. Fieldwork began last month in Dutchess County, New York. The Tick Project is conducting two experiments to kill ticks.

“The Tick Control System” is a small box that attracts rodents. When the rodent goes into the box it is dosed with fipronil, a chemical that kills ticks.

The second experiment works to kill the ticks directly using Met2 fungal spray. A strain of a naturally occurring fungus, Metarhizium anisopliae is sprayed on vegetation where it kills the ticks.

There are many research programs sponsored by the Federal government. There is ongoing work to develop better tests to diagnose Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. With better diagnostic techniques, treatments can be improved.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has researchers evaluating the effectiveness of nootkatone a chemical found in grapefruit and Alaskan yellow cedar as a tick repellent. Scientists are also looking at garlic oil, and the essential oil derived from the leaves of a wild tomato plant as tick repellents. 

Another CDC study looked at to the effectiveness of permethrin-treated clothing. (Early results suggest it gives ticks something like a “hotfoot” and stops or slows their movement.) The study’s authors stopped short of a full endorsement of the technique.  “The protective effect of summer-weight permethrin-treated clothing against tick bites merits further study,” they say.

Want to know the best method to keep kicks off you in the first place? Bad news.  There is no study of studies that endorse a single "best" method.  The Dutchess County Department of Health compiled a very useful paper on the use of the various repellents on the market. Click here to read it and then decide for yourself. 

Meanwhile the Pentagon started its own “Tick-Borne Disease Research Program" in 2016 with funds specifically directed by Congress. Although the Defense Department is watching the 16 known tick-borne diseases and is keeping tabs on newly emerging diseases, its priority is Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever. That disease is found in Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Asia

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