Why It Took So Long to Develop a New Vaccine for Lyme Disease

via The New Yorker


Initially halted by public fears, a preventive treatment could be here in two years.

In May, an article with the unprepossessing title “Detecting Borrelia Spirochetes: A Case Study with Validation Among Autopsy Specimens” was published in the medical journal Frontiers in Neurology. The deceased person in question was a sixty-nine-year-old woman who suffered from severe cognitive impairment. Fifteen years before her death she had been treated for Lyme disease, the most prevalent tick-borne illness in the United States, and was thought to have fully recovered. Yet, when her brain and spinal-cord tissue were examined, researchers found intact Borrelia spirochetes, the bacteria responsible for Lyme. If the woman’s cognitive decline did result from Lyme disease—which the paper suggested was a strong possibility—then it was further evidence that the illness could persist and wreak havoc long after a tick bite, and long after treatment.


The standard therapy for Lyme disease is a course of antibiotics, typically doxycycline. Ideally, the medication should be taken within a few days of infection, but it’s tricky. The ticks that carry the bacteria are about the size of a poppy seed, their bites are painless, and not everyone gets a telltale bull’s-eye-shaped rash at the site of the bite. Many people don’t know they’ve been infected until they become symptomatic with joint pain, fever, body aches, chills, heart palpitations, myocarditis, and brain fog, at which point the antibiotics may be ineffective. Of the estimated half a million people who get Lyme disease each year in the United States, around ten to twenty per cent might fall into this category. But, as the dead woman’s brain showed, sometimes, even when the antibiotic is administered at the right time, it’s insufficient. A more effective strategy would be to impede transmission before the bacteria have a chance to enter the bloodstream. And that, too, has been tricky—but may be about to change.


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