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Vaccine inventor raises alarm on Lyme disease

The race to develop a vaccine for Zika virus has gotten a lot of attention this summer.

But there is scant public mention of the lack of a vaccine against another pest-borne malady that strikes many more people in the United States: Lyme disease.

Stanley A. Plotkin is out to change that.

Plotkin, an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania who developed the rubella vaccine, sounded the alarm this month in the New England Journal of Medicine. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that 300,000 people are diagnosed each year with the illness, which is transmitted by ticks.

"The worst recent failure to use an effective vaccine, in my view, has been the lack of prophylaxis against Lyme disease," he wrote in the journal's Sept. 8 issue.

Plotkin has made a public appeal for a Lyme vaccine before, writing in a 2013 New York Times article about his son's hospitalization with the disease. He lamented that such a vaccine previously had been available but was taken off the market in 2002 by its manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline.

What has changed since then is that several companies are once again taking action. One Lyme vaccine is under development by an Austria-based company called Valneva, Plotkin wrote in his new commentary.

In an interview, the physician scientist said he was aware of two other companies pursuing possible vaccines, but said he was not authorized to identify them.

Glaxo said it took its vaccine off the market due to poor sales. Activists had cited reports that some people developed arthritis symptoms after getting the vaccine, and lawsuits were filed and settled. Yet studies failed to demonstrate such a risk, Plotkin wrote.

For a vaccine to stay on the market this time around, Plotkin said, strong support from physicians and public-health officials is key.

A growing awareness of the disease could help, too. Some experts say the actual number of cases could be as much as 50 percent higher than the CDC's 300,000 estimate, said vaccine researcher Benjamin J. Luft, a professor of medicine at Stony Brook University in New York.

"I think there's a real need," said Luft, whose research on Lyme was cited in Plotkin's commentary.

Plotkin's enthusiasm for vaccines is no secret. In addition to developing the rubella vaccine that is in widespread use around the world, he also was the co-inventor of one for rotavirus. He currently consults for various vaccine manufacturers, though none is pursuing a Lyme vaccine, he said.

His son, Alec, suffered inflammation of the heart as the result of his Lyme infection in 2005 and had to be fitted with a pacemaker, though he has since recovered, his father said. A minority of Lyme patients can experience lingering symptoms for many months.

Plotkin said the gravity of the illness makes him determined to keep warning the public until someone listens.

"I am nothing if not persistent," he said.