Lyme Disease Vaccine: Media impact on Medicine

An interesting story about the Lyme Disease Vaccine and the impact of the media. I heard this in a lecture and found it so interesting! I wasn’t sure if the lecturer was lying or not

The background: Lyme disease is caused  by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of the blacklegged ticks. Infections can present with a lot of non-specific symptoms like fatigue, rash.

If left untreated Lyme disease can get into the nervous system and can eventually lead to arthritis caused by Lyme disease in people who have a genetic predisposition (HLA – DR4). The way this vaccine worked was that it presented a lesser form of the virus to your immune system. Your body is able to learn all about the bacteria and how to fight it off in case you are ever exposed to it again. Some scientists wondered if people with the aforementioned genetic marker would be susceptible to developing arthritis. As they we The answer in their experiments was a resounding no.

“As research was done to test the hypothesis, the media began to cover the topic heavily. Although stories usually pointed out that no study or research to date had shown that the vaccine could cause arthritis, headlines on the same articles tended to present the issue pessimistically: “Concerns Grow Over Reactions to Lyme Shots,” “Lyme Vaccine May Cause Problems,” and “Lyme Disease Vaccine’s Safety Is Questioned” all appeared in 2000 and 2001.”

Anti-vaccination groups eventually gathered and under pressure from the groups, the vaccine was pulled of the market.

When I heard about this, I had two main lines of thought:

(1) Lyme Disease doesn’t really affect all that many people a year. It’s treatable and in endemic areas maybe doctors being aware and PSAs are enough?

In 2016 there were ~ 10, 226 probable cases[2]. Basically all these cases come from 14 states.

(2) How effective was the vaccine? Birth control can make people depressed, yet we have deemed that an acceptable risk. Does the arthritis fade in time? How many people really have this genetic risk factor? What percentage of people develop this who even have this genetic predisposition? 

The vaccine was found to be ~78% effective, but everything else I wasn’t able to find a reasonable answers for the other things.

I think this is a case where the media went a little far in their headlines which apparently even back then is all people read:) Despite this downside, public opinion moving markets is a check on companies producing vaccines (which are already highly regulated).

tl;dr – I don’t really know what to think about the influence of the media on medicine or really how we can separate them entirely. Certainly medicine needs the media as a platform to disperse information and the media can provide a check on the field of medicine (i.e. VA wait times) that is needed to keep the quality of patient care consistent. As much as I hate to say it, I think perhaps we need both? A decidedly unsatisfying conclusion, but I couldn’t really justify hating on the media anymore after doing some more research and thinking about it.

Read this piece which is far more detailed and has more of the juicy details!


First part is paraphrased/taken from here




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