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Lyme disease: What is it? Will an increased number of cases lead to a vaccine?

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  • Abbi Aruck 

The number of Lyme disease cases in the US has increased dramatically in the last 15 years.

So what does that mean in terms of contacting the disease and do I need a vaccine for it?

Insurance data shows increase in Lyme disease cases in the US

In the last 15 years, Lyme disease diagnoses have increased 357% in rural areas and 65% in urban areas. This is evidence that tick-borne illnesses are becoming a greater concern nationally, not just where it has been problematic historically.

FAIR Health is a national, independent nonprofit group. They focus on health care information that comes from a collection of more than 36 billion private insurance claims records. The 15-year analysis included private insurance claims from 2007 to 2021. That analysis found that in the past five years, between 2016 and 2021, diagnoses rose 60% in rural areas and 19% in urban areas.

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease cases tend to peak in the summer months when people are spending more time outside. Grassy areas, wooded areas, parks, and fields are all places that you could come in contact with ticks– that may carry Lyme disease.

In June and July, Lyme disease diagnoses were more common in rural areas. From November to April, diagnoses are more common in urban areas.

This has the potential to continue impacting patients long after treatment for the infection– this is known as chronic Lyme disease. Even though antibiotics can treat the illness, some patients develop long-term symptoms such as fatigue, mental dysfunction, and muscle and joint pain.

Most cases of Lyme disease are mild, and many people may not realize that they are sick. However, in more serious and untreated cases, the disease can spread to the heart, joints, nervous system, and major organs. This could lead to neurological problems that come up weeks or months after an infection.

Historically, ticks are a serious issue in the Northeast and upper Midwest. However, studies have found high rates of Lyme disease in other parts of the US too.

New Jersey leading in Lyme disease cases

The top five states leading in Lyme cases from highest to lowest are: New Jersey, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Maine previously has not made the list, but there is some concern after noticing the jump. The other states in the top 20 following Connecticut are: Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Virginia, Hawaii, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Delaware, Alaska, Washington D.C., Indiana, Maryland and Iowa.

Despite the increase, most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics, according to the CDC. Insect repellent and quick tick removal are good ways to reduce your likelihood if contracting it.

Lyme disease vaccine is in the final clinical trial

With Lyme disease more prevalent than ever before, a vaccine is in the works. This could be especially beneficial for those who love the outdoors. The vaccine aims to protect people as young as 5 from the disease.

If the vaccine gets approval after the final trial, it would become the only Lyme disease vaccine available for humans in the US. However, it is expected to take years for the potential vaccine to reach the market. If the phase-three study is successful, vaccine authorization would likely take place in 2025.

The new vaccine is called VLA15 and is now in the third phase of a clinical study in humans. The vaccine was created by Pfizer and French drug-maker Valneva.

There used to be a Lyme disease vaccine in the US called LYMERix, but it was taken off the market 20 years ago. The vaccine had high efficacy, but caused adverse reactions including arthritis. However, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases notes that analysis by the FDA did not support that conclusion. Regardless, the use of the vaccine dramatically decreased, leading to it being discontinued.

The new vaccine for humans works similarly to LYMERix by targeting an outer surface protein of the Borrelia bacteria that cause Lyme disease. The current study includes 6,000 participants in the U.S. and Europe. Each participant is at least 5 years old and live in places where Lyme disease is “highly endemic.”

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