I will always remember the day when one of my friends from college came into my room crying because she had recently been diagnosed with lupus. As a nursing student, I made it my responsibility to immediately learn more about this disease to support her.
Jamie was glad to have a diagnosis, but became frustrated when treatment did not alleviate any of her symptoms. Several months later, she told me her doctors now thought it could be multiple sclerosis. Finally, two years after Jamie’s first doctor’s visit, she was correctly diagnosed with Lyme disease, an easily treatable infection transmitted by a tick.
It is an infection that affects over 30,000 people a year in Connecticut alone, a rate 10 times higher than it was 10 years ago (Connecticut Department of Public Health, 2015) — an infection for which an effective vaccine was created, but later pulled due to false allegations during the anti-vaccine fad in the early 2000s, poor education among providers about its use, and related low sales.
As the state most heavily impacted by Lyme disease, it’s our responsibility as nurses to advocate for our patients and community to return a successful vaccine to the market.
Jamie was comparatively lucky to have been diagnosed and treated within two years of the initiation of her symptoms. According to one of the largest comprehensive studies done on the impact of Lyme disease in the United States, approximately 50 percent of all participants had seen at least seven providers before they were correctly diagnosed with Lyme disease.
Nearly half of them had the disease for over 10 years before they received treatment. Another 25 percent had to receive public support or disability due to their symptoms.
Although public awareness is growing, the symptoms are often vague such as fatigue and joint pain causing difficulty in diagnosis by providers and patients to attribute their symptoms to aging or a viral infection and not seek medical care. It is costly, time consuming, and a burden on our Connecticut communities financially and medically.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine LYMErix 1998 by GlaxoSmithKline for people ages 15-70 in a three-injection series. Adverse reactions were infrequently and mild and it completely prevented infection in 76-100 percent of cases (Beard et al., 2011). For reasons unrelated to its efficacy LYMErix was voluntarily pulled from the market by its manufacturer primarily due to very vocal anti-vaccine groups.
In recent years, there has been a renewed general acceptance that vaccinations are safe and the benefits greatly outweigh the potential risks involved. However, the failure of the Lyme disease vaccine is an excellent example of how influential public opinion can be and why a loud, informed, and unified voice from the health community is crucial to protect the public from preventable and costly illness.
Jamie is doing much better now. After being diagnosed, she was treated with antibiotics and no longer is debilitated by fatigue and pain. She graduated college a semester late with a degree in public health and has become involved with educating the public on Lyme disease.
It is time for the public to also work towards the prevention of this epidemic disease. It is time for a new Lyme vaccine.
Carolyn Noyes is a registered nurse and doctoral nursing student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst studying to become a family nurse practitioner. She is passionate about public health education and preventative care and currently lives in Nicaragua.