Lyme disease: vaccine could halt rise of tick-borne disease

Experts have issued a warning as cases rise in the UK

A tick on human skin
People bitten by ticks should look out for a circular rash
(Image credit: RB Komar/Getty)

A vaccine for Lyme disease could be available soon, according to reports.

A promising jab for the disease was pulled from the market in 2002 due to low demand and claims of arthritis and other side effects. However, Moderna has announced that two novel mRNA vaccines against Lyme disease are on their way, reported Forbes.

The news emerged as experts urged Britons to “stay safe” amid claims the cases could be escalating here. “Oh good, a rare disease is on the rise in the UK,” said Huffington Post.

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But how worried should we be?

What is it?

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that can be spread to humans by infected ticks. An “early symptom” can be a circular or oval shape rash around a tick bite, said the NHS.

The rash usually appears within four weeks, but it can appear up to three months after being bitten by an infected tick.

Other common symptoms include:

  • high temperature
  • headache
  • muscle and joint pain
  • fatigue and loss of energy
  • children may suffer facial palsy

If left untreated, Lyme disease can be “very serious”, emergency physician and George Washington University professor Leana Wen told Axios. “Some people develop debilitating symptoms that really impact their lives.”

In some cases, people with Lyme disease go on to develop long-term symptoms similar to those of fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome, the NHS warns. This is known as post-infectious Lyme disease.

How is it spread?

The infection can be spread to humans by ticks carrying the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium, which is present in many animals, including mice, deer and pheasants. If a tick bites one of these animals, “it becomes infected and can pass the bacterial infection on to humans by biting them”, said the Huffington Post.

The “peak season” for ticks is April to October, though they are active all year round, said the BBC. There are “hotspots”, such as woodlands and moors, where ticks are common, but they can also appear in city gardens, it added.

A number of high-profile celebrities and politicians have reportedly contracted the disease, including Avril Lavigne, Alec Baldwin and George W Bush. In 2015, the British billionaire and Phones4U founder John Caudwell revealed that his entire family had been infected.

Is it rising in the UK?

The government has estimated there are around 3,000 to 4,000 cases of the disease every year in England and Wales, but data published in 2019 suggested that the “real numbers could be around three times higher”, said The Mirror.

The prevalence of the disease “has been steadily increasing since the first confirmed case was reported in 1986”, said the Microbiology Society. “This reflects a genuine increase, although greater awareness and increased testing are relevant.”

Is there a vaccine?

There could be soon. Pharmaceutical giant Moderna said it is developing two new mRNA vaccines that could prevent Lyme disease, marking the “first application of its mRNA technology to bacterial pathogens”.

Vaccinating against bacterial infections like Lyme is “generally more complicated” than protecting against viral infections like Covid, said Forbes, and the effort marks the first time Moderna has applied its mRNA technology to bacterial threats.

What can I do to avoid getting infected?

Lyme Disease UK is “urging people to be vigilant”, reported the Liverpool Echo. It advises people to take steps such as using an effective tick repellent on outdoor trips and carrying a tick removal tool.

The charity also suggests keeping away from long grass and sticking to pathways wherever possible. Showering and conducting a thorough tick check on yourself, children and pets when you get home are also recommended.

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