Why Your Dog Can Get Vaccinated Against Lyme Disease And You Can’t

Canine vaccines protect against Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

BOSTON — Eleven-year-old “Ned Kelly” is in for his annual physical at a clinic in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. As part of his check-up, he’s getting a booster shot to protect him against Lyme disease. Ned doesn’t like needles, but he holds still while Dr. Joel Kaye squeezes the pink serum under his skin.

“Little pinch,” says Dr. Kaye, “we’ll be home free. All right, good job!”

Ned is lucky, because he’s one of the select few who can get the vaccine that gives him immunity against Lyme disease.

Ned is lucky because he’s a dog.

At the MSPCA Angell Animal Medical Center, dogs are regularly vaccinated against Lyme. Ned’s owner, Joe Turchin, lives in Falmouth. Ticks are bad there and Lyme is prevalent.

Turchin’s glad he can protect his dog. But he wishes there were a human vaccine, too.

“You know, if there were a vaccine,” Turchin says, “our doctors would be suggesting it to us, certainly for those of us on the Cape and the islands. Because it’s a horrendous plague!”

Actually, modern science has given us a human vaccine against Lyme disease.

Too bad we don’t use it.

“Lyme disease is the only infection I know of where we have a safe and effective vaccine, but it’s not available to the public,” says Dr. Allen Steere, the physician who uncovered the disease. Steere was 33 years old back in 1975 when he was sent to the Connecticut town of Lyme to look into a mysterious cluster of kids who had gotten arthritis.

Dr. Allen Steere, the discoverer of Lyme disease (Josh Berlinger for WBUR)

“Four or five months into the investigation, we came to suspect that ticks may be involved,” Steere said of his team’s work. They had found a previously unknown disease, and ever since, Lyme has been Steere’s life’s work.

After the discovery, he and other scientists first isolated the spiral-shaped bacterium that causes Lyme disease, and then they looked for ways to make people immune to it. Today, Steere’s laboratory is at Massachusetts General Hospital. He says finding a biological pathway to vaccinate against Lyme was a major milestone.

“Lyme disease was epidemic in certain locations, particularly in the northeastern United States,” Steere says. “So here was the possibility of really changing that.”

By the mid-1990s, two pharmaceutical companies began trials of candidate vaccines.

Dr. Gregory Poland is a vaccinologist at the Mayo Clinic. He says the vaccines helped people build up lots of antibodies that killed the Lyme agent relatively quickly. “So that when a tick bites you and sucks your blood, it is sucking up the antibodies out of your blood,” Poland says. “Those antibodies go into the tick’s gut, kill the Lyme organisms so that when that tick then regurgitates into your skin, you don’t get Lyme disease.”

Poland says as innovative as these vaccines were for killing the Lyme bacterium before it even got into your body, they weren’t perfect. You had to get booster shots, so it took a year to become immune. It wasn’t approved for children 14 and under. Still, for those 15 and above, it worked pretty well. Human trials conducted by Steere showed that about 80 percent of those vaccinated gained immunity.

“People are fed up! This is a terrible situation we’re in, which means that a vaccine still makes sense.”
– Sam Telford, veterinarian

Introduced in 1998, the vaccine sold well at first. But then opponents spoke out: self-described ‘vaccine victims’ — perhaps similar to people today who claim the MMR vaccine causes autism. Back then, they said that the Lyme vaccine gave them arthritis.

“And this sort of got into popular lore,” Poland recalls. “It got on the Internet. There were a number of East Coast lawyers who started putting together class-action lawsuits. There were anti-vaccine advocacy groups that were formed.”

And there were threats against the scientists who had worked to help protect people against the disease. Poland had to hide where he lived. Steere got a security detail.

The clinical data did not back up any of this. The trials had not shown such side effects. The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control looked into the claims, and then continued to recommended that people exposed to tick-infested areas get the vaccine.

But it was too late. Sales had plummeted. Four years after offering people immunity against Lyme, SmithKline Beecham stopped making the vaccine. The second vaccine-maker, Pasteur Mérieux Connaught, saw what had happened and never put out its own product.

The vaccine kills lyme bacteria in the tick before they even make it into the dog’s body. (Curt Nickish/WBUR)

“Now with the withdrawal of the vaccine, people are doing all kinds of things,” Poland says.

Poland notes that since then, Lyme has become more widespread and is now the most common tick-borne disease in the country.

“I’m personally aware of individuals, who in desperation have gone to veterinarians and remarkably convinced the veterinarian to inject them with the canine vaccine,” he says.

Despite the growing demand for access to a human vaccine, many drug companies say not they’re not interested in working on one.

“There are so many diseases,” notes Farshad Guirakhoo, senior director of external in North America at Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines division of the drug giant Sanofi. His company is working instead on a vaccine for dengue fever.

“For diseases like Lyme disease, the medical need is smaller,” Guirakhoo says. “So we need to put our resources toward where the medical need is greater and then you can make the vaccine.”

With little to no interest from drug companies, some people want government to step in — even state government. Earlier this month, at a hearing of the new Massachusetts Lyme Disease Commission, veterinarian Sam Telford suggested the Bay State license GlaxoSmithKline’s FDA-approved vaccine.

“We all know that the market has changed,” Dr. Telford said then. “People are fed up! This is a terrible situation we’re in, which means that a vaccine still makes sense.”

Telford arguess the state could make it at the UMass Biologics Laboratory in Jamaica Plain, a facility that has made other vaccines before. GlaxoSmithKline would not say whether it would consider such an option.

So for now, there’s no sign of any vaccine becoming available. And if there were, Poland says the old opponents are already promising to fight the introduction of any new Lyme vaccine.

“So we know scientifically how to develop a vaccine that would protect against all this human misery,” Poland says with an air of regret. “And yet, for these societal and cultural reasons, not scientific reasons, that will not be done in the foreseeable future in the U.S.”

Steere is a little more hopeful. The man who first connected the mysterious affliction to the ticks of Lyme, Conn., back in 1975, has worked on the disease his entire professional life. Losing the human vaccine that he had helped along, he admits, was a major setback. But he doesn’t want to assign blame.

“Multiple things happened,” Steere says. “What I’d like to see happen now, is that it’s possible to move on. Even make a better vaccine. I think that’s still possible.”

Until that day, people are going to have to try to protect themselves. Long pants. Insecticides. Body inspections. People are going to have to keep living with Lyme.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on wbur.org.
  • KMDickson

    No animal vaccine ever prevented spirochetes, so none of this is true:

  • KMDickson

    If you want to read about what role Steere played in falsifying the testing for Lyme in order to falsify the OspA vaccines outcomes, you can use this reference set:
    Dude is a mass-murderer.

    • Vax_Choice_Human_Right

      fascinating and informative collection. thank you for sharing!

    • kellymbray

      He is a hero and you are a deluded crank.

  • Tony

    I asked my doctor about the vaccine around 2001 and he said it was only about 50% effective and since I’d have the antibodies there was no way to tell if was ever really infected. So he basically talked me out of it.

    • KMDickson

      The vaccine was falsely qualified with the bogus 1994 Dearborn method. At that Dearborn conference, the average % accuracy of the Steere proposal (the panel/criteria we got despite the disapproval of the participants) was 15%. The Dearborn schema deliberately misses 85% of the cases.
      You can download the Dearborn booklet pdf from my website and see for yourself.

      • KMDickson

        The vaccine *gave* people a Lyme-like illness because it, as OspA, or a tri-acyl lipopeptide, caused immunosuppression and the activation of Epstein-Barr/Similar herpes.

  • Klapetkova

    Very interesting discussion. I live in Alabama, where as my pediatrician told me “oh, there’s no lyme disease here” and yet a dear friend of mine knows of three cases. How are these not reported to the CDC? I am thoroughly convinced that with the number of deer here that there is either lyme disease or another tick-borne infection present. My husband and good friend are both from the Czech Republic where people are vaccinated for strains of tick-borne bacteria. Of course one must weigh the risks of infection versus the risk of vaccination. All vaccines carry some risk, but lyme disease is terrible. I’d take the vaccine any day.

  • KMDickson

    Ask Allen Steere what OspA was. The structure. Then you will know it was never a vaccine and Steere is a murderer because he was responsible for falsifying the testing for Lyme in order to falsify the fake OspA “vaccines.”

    • KMDickson

      Go ahead. Do it. Grow a pair, wbur. Ask Steere what was the structure-function of OspA. He won’t answer you. Wanna bet?

  • KMDickson


    “We have previously shown that exposure to Pam3CSK4 (PAM)
    [LYMErix or OspA] and lipopolysaccharide (LPS), specific ligands for
    TLR-1/2 and TLR-4, respectively, impair neonatal brain development [10, 11].”


  • MannieP

    It’s a shame we can’t infect the Anti Vaccine Luddites with the diseases they are promoting.

    • KMDickson

      By all means. You tell us what OspA is. When you can tell us what it is/does and show us that OspA could never have been a vaccine, then maybe we’ll think you’re qualified to comment. Now, go ahead and find the structure of OspA and post us the link here. (The image of the structure is not in the drug monograph but feel free to find that out for yourself.)

  • johnfembup

    Shame there’s no vaccine for stupid.

  • heartprivacy

    The free market at work.

  • KMDickson

    Hello WBUR? Did you find out the structure of OspA yet? Did you ask Allen Steere if he would show you the actual STRUCTURE of that molecule? We’re waiting.

  • KMDickson

    Hello? Just checking back in to see if anyone from WBUR has actually asked Allen Steere for the structure of OspA? Nothing yet?
    I thought so.

    • karnak58

      You are dangerously delusional.

  • basenjibrian

    I think KMDickson must be a paid shill for homeopathy or some of the quack “chelation” doctors out there. Nobody can be that devoted or that insane. She has to be in it for the money. Repeating one factoid or question over and over and over…typical “technique” for these tools.
    So…which gang is it? Chelation therapy? Herbal tinctures? Homeopathy? That nutty British doctor Wakefield? Definitely one of the Big Quackery groups.
    KMDickson obviously could care less about people suffering from the impacts of Lyme Disease. Not when Ideology…or PROFIT is involved.

  • Arren Brandt

    It’s amazing to see the pure viciousness in the antivaccine comments here. Lets hope this vaccine gets into production again. Think of the 100′s of millions who have their ongoing lives to thank vaccines for.

    • karnak58

      There is little commonsense in the antivaccine crowd they are driven by fear and disinformation.


    I was a member of a study done by a group from Yale, whose name I can’t recall, but after going through the entire regimen, and being assured that because I’d been a participant in what was explained to me as a controlled study, I’d receive the entire vaccine regimen (I was in the “placebo” control group, which means I didn’t get the vaccine but rather a water injection)including the annual boosters, However, after I got the initial “vaccine” I was told that I didn’t fit the “profile” of the group and therefore wouldn’t get the boosters, and further they couldn’t expect me to develop an immunity from just the vaccine. Certainly raises questions about the integrity of the people who were promoting the vaccine (Lymrix comes to mind) and the accuracy of their reports to the FDA, among others.

  • Efreet

    …the danger of when superstition trumps science.

Most Popular