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Arthritis Health Center

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Is the Lyme Disease Vaccine a Lemon?

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

Jan. 31, 2001 (Washington) -- Could a vaccine be more dangerous than the disease it's supposed to prevent? That question was heavy in the air Wednesday, as the Food and Drug Administration's Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee held a special session on the safety of Glaxo SmithKline's Lyme disease vaccine LYMErix.

The panel held the meeting to review reports that indicate the vaccine may somehow trigger treatment-resistant Lyme arthritis and other chronic arthritic disorders.

About two-and-a-half years ago, the same committee had recommended that the FDA approve the vaccine, and panel members said they were frustrated that additional studies have failed to clear up uncertainties about adverse events that may be linked to the vaccine.

In the end, most panel members said they supported revisions and possible new warnings on the vaccine's package inserts, as well as heightened public education about the potential risks of the vaccine.

Lyme disease most commonly affects individuals in New England and the mid-Atlantic states. It's transferred to humans via deer ticks that live in grassy and wooded areas, with May and June being the highest-risk months for transmission. The disease was first recognized in 1975, and the vaccine maker says that it is still on the rise. More than 100,000 cases were reported to the federal government between 1982 and 1998.

Lyme disease isn't life threatening, but its long-term effects can include joints destruction, neurological disorders, and other serious conditions.

The LYMErix vaccine was approved late in 1998 for use in those at least 15 years old. It's been marketed in the U.S. since January 1999, and Glaxo SmithKline says that it has distributed 1.4 million doses, although it acknowledged that fewer patients than expected have actually received the vaccine.

The vaccine series, which is administered in three separate doses, is relatively costly. Each dose costs about $50. Despite the cost, its effectiveness is somewhere less than 80%.

Even as panel members noted that science on the vaccine's safety has not advanced in recent years, they said that anecdotal complaints from patients have increased dramatically. A series of Lyme vaccine recipients and patient advocates made often-emotional presentations to the panel, urging that the vaccine be pulled from the market, that it be put on hold until ongoing safety studies are completed, or that stronger warnings go on the product's labeling.

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