Suffolk Closeup: Ending the scourge of Lyme disease

Want some good news?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced last month a plan to expedite the approval process for a vaccine to ward off Lyme disease.

The vaccine’s maker, Valneva, has completed an initial clinical trial.

Headquartered in France, Valneva conducted a “Phase 1” clinical trial of the vaccine, named VLA15, in the United States and Belgium.

“Whether or when” the FDA will approve the vaccine is “uncertain,” noted Newsweek in its report on the FDA action, “but the FDA’s Fast Track designation indicates that the need is critical, now more than ever ….The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that Lyme disease is the fastest growing vector-borne infection in the U.S.”

The North Fork and Suffolk County as a whole have long been hotbeds for Lyme disease.

There was once an earlier vaccine to prevent the disease. Indeed, when that vaccine, called LYMErix and produced by SmithKline Beecham, first came out in 1998, I got a series of injections of it.

Making a judgment based on a negative is problematic, but a terrific negative in this situation is that I’ve never come down with Lyme disease since. And in the ensuing years my wife, working with tweezers, has pulled off me at least 40 ticks, the vector or carrier of Lyme disease.

I went for the shots from Dr. Dan Lessner of Sag Harbor, now retired, after having written pieces on the devastating impacts of Lyme if not caught promptly and treated with antibiotics.

The first time I heard about the disease was from a neighbor who had a severe case in the early 1980s. The leadership of the Suffolk Department of Health Services then downplayed the gravity of Lyme disease. I wrote how a tick bite is sometimes not apparent and if Lyme is not stopped in time, the disease can become chronic and turn into a long-lasting medical nightmare.

So, as soon as I read about a new vaccine I went for the injections. But not long after I got the shots, LYMErix was taken off the market by its manufacturer following complaints of adverse reactions in some people, notably the development of arthritis after vaccination in some cases. In 1999, a group of 121 individuals brought a class action lawsuit.

SmithKline Beecham settled the lawsuit in 2003. “The plaintiffs didn’t receive any compensation,” reported Newsweek, “because their attorney said SmithKline Beecham’s voluntary removal of LYMErix from the market was sufficient enough.”

“If You’ve Had Lyme disease, Blame the Anti-Vaxxers,” screamed the headline of the investigative magazine Mother Jones last month. “Lyme disease has been spreading for years, and thanks to global warming it’s poised to explode over the next few years,” its article began.

“Influenced by now-discredited research … activists raised the question of whether Lyme disease could cause arthritis. Media coverage and the anti-Lyme-vaccination groups gave a voice to those who believed their pain was due to the vaccine, and public support for the vaccine declined,” the Mother Jones’ story continued. “But there was a control group — the rest of the U.S. population. And when the FDA reviewed the vaccine’s adverse event reports in a retrospective study, they found only 905 reports for 1.4 million doses. Still, the damage was done, and the vaccine was benched.”

The Mother Jones piece concluded: “All of you who have had Lyme disease should know this. You could have avoided it if not for the ravings of the anti-vax nitwits and the gullibility of the mainstream TV talkers who give them a platform. It’s long past time to put an end to this idiocy.”

The Mother Jones article also quoted Dr. Stanley Plotkin, an emeritus professor of the University of Pennsylvania who developed the rubella vaccine and co-invented vaccines for rabies and rotavirus. Dr. Plotkin was cited, too, in a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine — considered among the finest medical journals in the world — stating that the absence of a Lyme disease vaccine is “the worst recent failure to use an effective vaccine.”

I’m of a generation that still remembers fear of polio. I recall the concerns about polio in Boy Scout camp in the early 1950s. Franklin D. Roosevelt had contracted polio visiting a Scout encampment, also in upstate New York, a few decades earlier. I remember seeing an “iron lung” for the first time — a metal cylinder that a person with acute polio and extreme difficulty breathing was placed.

And then the Salk polio vaccine arrived and eradicated the polio scourge.

grossman_karl150Karl Grossman is a veteran journalist and professor and a member of the Press Club of Long Island’s Journalism Hall of Fame. His Suffolk Closeup column is syndicated in newspapers across the county.