He says finding a biological pathway to vaccinate against Lyme was a major milestone.
“Lyme disease was epidemic in certain locations, particularly in the northeastern United States,” Steere says. “So here was the possibility of really changing that.”
By the mid-1990s, two pharmaceutical companies began trials of candidate vaccines.
Dr. Gregory Poland is a vaccinologist at the Mayo Clinic. He says the vaccines helped people build up lots of antibodies that killed the Lyme agent relatively quickly. “So that when a tick bites you and sucks your blood, it is sucking up the antibodies out of your blood,” Poland says. “Those antibodies go into the tick’s gut, kill the Lyme organisms so that when that tick then regurgitates into your skin, you don’t get Lyme disease.”
Poland says as innovative as these vaccines were for killing the Lyme bacterium before it even got into your body, they weren’t perfect. You had to get booster shots, so it took a year to become immune. It wasn’t approved for children 14 and under. Still, for those 15 and above, it worked pretty well. Human trials conducted by Steere showed that about 80 percent of those vaccinated gained immunity.