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Lyme disease: one step closer to a vaccine?

Scientists may be one step closer to a human vaccine against Lyme disease. Researchers at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene and the University of Wisconsin in Madison have developed a serum to prevent laboratory animals from developing symptoms of the disease.

The study, published in the January Infection and Immunity, a monthly journal of the American Society for Microbiology, observed that hamsters injected with an immune serum did not develop arthritis, one of the primary side effects of Lyme disease, when infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes the disease. The serum was obtained from the blood of hamsters that had been previously infected with Borrelia burgdorferi. Infected hamsters not given the serum showed signs of arthritis, as well as swelling of the paws.

The bacteria are transmitted to humans through the bite of the tiny deer tick, Ixodes dammini. The disease often begins as a red, bull's-eye-shaped rash (also known as erythema chronicum migrans) that expands across the skin a few days to a month after the tick bite. This is often followed by fatigue, headache, fever, chills, stiff neck, joint pain, and muscle aches. Left untreated, the disease can lead to severe headaches, facial numbness or paralysis, irregular heartbeat, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath. Eventually, Lyme sufferers may have recurring arthritis attacks in the large joints, as well as fatigue, short-term memory problems and a burning or numbness in the limbs. A small percentage develop chronic arthritis, neurological problems (such as meningitis) or both.

First identified in the U.S. in 1975 when a group of school children in Lyme, Conn., simultaneously came down with arthritis, Lyme disease is currently the nation's most frequently reported tick-borne disease. It infects animals, as well as humans. The Ixodes tick can be found anywhere, including both coasts, but most frequently along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Cases have been reported in other countries as well, including France, Sweden, the U.S.S.R., and Australia.

Thus far the only treatment for Lyme disease is oral penicillin, which usually prevents major complications; if meningitis or heart block occurs, penicillin is given intravenously in large doses. The Wisconsin researchers hope the hamster studies will lead toward the development of a vaccine.
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Publication:Medical Update
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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