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Spring Brings New Lyme Vaccine

It's finally spring! Have you had your Lyme disease shot yet?

This year marks the first time that Americans can enter tick season armed with a vaccine against Lyme disease, and doctors in New England, Minnesota and other Lyme-plagued areas are starting to bug outdoors-loving patients to get the shots.

Why the urgency? Because it takes a series of three shots to build up full immunity. So, "the time to start getting it is right now," advises Phillip Baker, Lyme disease chief at the National Institutes of Health.

Lyme disease is a serious illness caused by deer ticks, the size of a pin head, that live in wooded and grassy areas nationwide, but especially in the Northeast, from Maryland to Maine, as well as Wisconsin and Minnesota. About 16,000 new cases are reported each year, a number that scientists such as Baker expect to drop rapidly because of the new vaccine LYMErix.

Typically, the illness -- named for Lyme, Conn., where it was discovered in 1975 -- starts with a telltale bull's-eye rash. Then comes the fatigue, chills, fevers and joint pain that can persist for weeks. Some people develop serious arthritis. If untreated, Lyme disease can also damage the heart and nervous system.

Antibiotics can cure Lyme, and the earlier treatment starts, the better. But there's no good test to diagnose Lyme disease and not everyone suffers early symptoms and knows to seek care.

So until now, doctors' best advice was to use a bug repellant containing the chemical DEET. Check yourself and your children regularly for ticks, and wear long sleeves and pants tucked into socks or boots when venturing into tick-prone areas like unmowed grass or brush.

But that last bit of advice is unrealistic. Ticks are most active in the summer when people are stripping down to shorts and bare feet. And it's not just campers, hikers or utility workers stomping through the brush who are at risk. Many people in Lyme-plagued areas are exposed in their own well-manicured back yards, just sitting in the grass or weeding the garden.

In December, the Food and Drug Administration approved the world's first Lyme vaccine, SmithKline Beecham's LYMErix. Now doctors are advising anyone, age 15 to 70 that lives in a Lyme-endemic state and spends time outdoors, to consider being vaccinated.

It's not for everyone. SmithKline hasn't yet finished testing how safe LYMErix is for children and how well it protects them; study results are expected later this year. It also has not been tested in the very elderly, pregnant women or people with such chronic diseases as rheumatoid arthritis.

Nor is the vaccine a panacea. It requires two shots given about a month apart, and then a third shot a year later. After the three-shot series, LYMErix offers about 80 percent protection from Lyme disease. But after just the first two shots, the vaccine is only about 50 percent effective.

So even the vaccinated will still have to check for ticks and ue insect repellent -- especially this year, before they get that final third shot. Ticks also carry other diseases that this vaccine can't prevent.

Don't panic if you get bitten by a tick without being vaccinated. All ticks don't carry Lyme, and they have to feed on you for about 48 hours before they can transmit the disease, NIH's Baker said. It takes that long for the Lyme bacteria hibernating in a tick's gut to activate and move into the salivary glands, where it's injected into a person.

"If you do regular tick checks each day and remove them, chances are you won't be infected," he said. "The bite itself is not enough."

The vaccine, however, blocks Lyme by creating antibodies that recognize an outer protein of the bacteria in the tick's saliva, neutralizing it at skin level.

Doctors buy each shot for $49, but patients may pay up to $60 when the office visit is added.

Written By Lauran Neergaard

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