Vaccinating Nature

Whenever I bring up the need for a Lyme disease vaccine, I'm typically greeted by one of two responses. The first comes from Canadians who are incredulous that we have a vaccine to protect dogs and even horses from Lyme disease, but we do not currently have one to protect humans. The second comes from those who are fundamentally opposed to human vaccines against any and all illnesses. Period. Don't even go there. Just stop.

Personally, I'm in favour of a Lyme vaccine. I would like to see one made available to all Canadians who are at high risk for contracting Lyme disease, whether it be because of where they live, the type of work or play they engage in, or any other factor that increases their susceptibility to a tick-borne illness that's gearing up to infect an ever increasing number of Canadians in the coming years and decades. Those who are opposed to a vaccine can opt out. That's their right. It's hard for me to imagine that anyone is going to force someone to get vaccinated for Lyme disease against their will. Not in the near future anyway.

For the record, there used to be a human Lyme disease vaccine that was withdrawn after only a few years on the market due in large part to public backlash, unbalanced media coverage, and an ill-advised roll out strategy by the manufacturer that caused the vaccine to be demonized. There was a widely held perception that the vaccine was unsafe and although there is no real evidence to support this view, the vaccine was withdrawn, leaving us with no human vaccine against Lyme and a fear amongst drug companies that if they dare develop a new one, that too would fall victim to the same backlash that took down the first. From everything I've seen, they're probably right.

So maybe a different approach is needed.

Maybe we should consider vaccinating nature against Lyme disease. That's not as far fetched as it sounds. There are several research groups looking into the possibility of using bait vaccines to eliminate Lyme disease in mice and other rodents before it can make it's way into humans. A similar strategy has been successful in addressing rabies in the US and recent studies have shown that these bait vaccines have promise in eliminating Lyme disease as well. With zoonotic diseases (diseases that jump the species barrier from animals into humans) making up roughly 75% of all emerging infectious diseases, bait traps that can be loaded with vaccines for Lyme bacteria and other tick-borne organisms make sense.

Of course, rolling out bait vaccines would be expensive and this strategy is only really feasible in areas where the risk of Lyme disease is high. But the reality is, we are starting to develop those areas in Canada and maybe it's time we look into using bait traps to control Lyme disease in those regions where the risks are highest. Nova Scotia comes to mind.

There is no way that bait vaccines can replace human vaccines, but they can augment them. And when the end-game is to protect the Canadian public from an emerging disease for which prevention is paramount, a strategy that refuses to recognize the growing unease so many Canadians feel about human vaccination has the potential to leave a significant proportion of this country's citizens unprotected. It isn't really sufficient to point out that refusing to be vaccinated is their choice. Not when strategies are being developed that promise to break the cycle of Lyme disease in nature before it can make its way up to humans.