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LI scientists develop new Lyme vaccine

A rash in the pattern of a bulls-eye,

A rash in the pattern of a bulls-eye, which manifested at the site of a tick bite. Photo Credit: AP

Lyme disease is a growing threat on Long Island and elsewhere in the world, say local scientists who have developed a new vaccine against three strains of the bacterial infection.

The vaccine was recently launched in clinical trials in Europe, where Lyme is also on the rise. The aim is to test the vaccine against the tick-borne disease in this country as well, its developers say.

"Lyme disease is a problem throughout the entire Northern Hemisphere," said Dr. Benjamin Luft, the vaccine's lead developer at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. Collaborators include scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Baxter Healthcare S.A., an Illinois-based health-products company.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in 2011, the most recent year for complete statistics, there were more than 24,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease nationally. But the agency also says Lyme disease is grossly underreported. Long Island, according to the CDC, is a key zone of infection.

Although the vaccine is still in an initial testing phase, it already appears to be well-tolerated, Luft said.

A new study of the vaccine, led by Noel Barrett of Baxter and published in the current online edition of The Lancet Infectious Diseases, assesses the safety and immune-boosting capacity of the vaccine in 300 people in Austria and Germany.

Luft said volunteers who've been immunized have responded well, producing a robust supply of antibodies against the three strains of Borrelia, the bacterial species that causes Lyme disease. People vaccinated with the formulation will have to receive two booster shots, Luft said.

Lyme disease is transmitted by infected blacklegged ticks, tiny arthropods that are endemic on Long Island. A tick can remain attached to a human host for days, and a female tick can consume 400 times her body weight in blood.

Lyme symptoms can include fatigue, rash, chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes, according to the CDC. In most patients, the infection is treated successfully with antibiotics and cured. For others, more aggressive symptoms that can include arthritis, memory problems and loss of facial muscle tone, can last months to years.

"Lyme disease continues to be the number one vector-borne disease in the United States," Luft said, referring to an infectious agent carried by one species and transmitted to another.

An earlier vaccine for Lyme disease was discontinued by its manufacturer in 2002 due to low demand, CDC officials say.

In March, a panel of scientists along with New York and Connecticut government officials gathered at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan to assess the nation's rising problem with tick-borne diseases. They declared the illnesses among the most serious facing the country.

"We must invest in better research," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) pointed to the underreporting of Lyme and also noted that diagnostic tools are inadequate. "Lyme disease is a pervasive and pernicious public health scourge," he said, calling for a national advisory body on Lyme that includes patients and medical experts.

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