The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced that rather than 30,000 new cases of Lyme disease each year in the United States, there are likely 300,000. What the CDC failed to explain is why it's taken them so long to acknowledge that Lyme disease has reached epidemic proportions.
The Lyme disease community has been battling for years to get the CDC to admit that Lyme disease is a mass public health crisis. Meanwhile, the CDC itself has been informally saying since 2004 that Lyme disease is probably 6 to 12 times more prevalent than the reported cases. Why then have they suddenly decided to formally acknowledge these higher rates?
On a recent "Your Own Health and Fitness" show about Lyme disease on KPFA radio in Berkeley, Calif., host Layna Berman observed that the announcement of increased rates coincides with a financial interest in releasing the new Baxter Lyme vaccine:
"With this announcement of the increased number of cases, we might imagine that an economic opportunity has presented itself. . . .The treatment favored by doctors who treat chronic Lyme . . . is long courses of antibiotics . . . But these treatments aren't money makers. So what inspired the CDC after so many decades of ignoring and denying chronic Lyme to release these new statistics? The promise of a new vaccine."
A pre-marketing campaign for the vaccine is already apparent. The New York Times editorial board heavily promoted the Baxter vaccine in a recent editorial. The article referenced an Op-Ed by Dr. Stanley Plotkin, who was described as a "leading vaccine expert" and "professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania," in which Plotkin said that he had been trying to "persuade manufacturers to make a new vaccine to help prevent some of the 300,000 new infections each year." He urged patients and physicians to write to the CDC and remind them of the need for a new Lyme vaccine, which would likely be recommended for a large part of the population of the United States. The editorial board concluded by saying, "It’s time to start writing those letters."
What the editorial board neglected to mention is that Dr. Stanley Plotkin is actually an "emeritus professor" at the University of Pennsylvania. His primary position is working as an executive adviser at the pharmaceutical firm Sanofi Pasteur, which is the largest company in the world devoted entirely to human vaccines. In addition, he's a consultant to most of the major vaccine manufacturers.
While news outlets like the Times receive funding from Big Pharma, the CDC is ostensibly an independent government agency acting to protect the public. Why would they have a financial stake in the vaccine?
The New York Times best selling author Dr. Joseph Mercola says, "Conflicts of interest are rampant in the vaccination infrastructure. The same people who are regulating and promoting vaccines are also evaluating vaccine safety.
For example, Dr. Paul Offit sat on the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunizations Practices (ACIP), which helped create the market for the Merck RotaTeq rotavirus vaccine. He then went on to work for the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where he earned at least $29 million as part of a $182 million sale by the hospital of its worldwide royalty interest in the RotaTeq vaccine.
In August 1999, the Committee on Government Reform investigated the federal vaccine policy. They found that many of those on two of the key advisory committees had financial ties to pharmaceutical companies that manufacture vaccines. Despite these conflicts of interest, the government employees were granted waivers allowing them to participate in discussions about vaccine licensing for children, even though federal law requires that members of advisory committees reveal such ties and recuse themselves from any discussions and decisions.
Lyme disease is one of the more recent examples of how conflicts of interest have impacted approval of vaccines as well as diagnostic tests. Through documents obtained as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, Stanford journalist Kris Newby uncovered news that a shadow group consisting of CDC employees and other researchers have significant commercial interests in Lyme disease tests and vaccines. A large percentage of government grants were given to these group members.
Newby found that this group has been setting Lyme disease policy and a national research agenda without public oversight or transparency. Part of the group's stated mission has been to run a covert "disinformation war" and a "socio-political offensive" to discredit patients, physicians and journalists who questioned the group's research and motives.
Allowing researchers and government employees with conflicts of interest to make decisions about Lyme disease policy is interfering with public safety. Tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme are known to be transmitted through blood transfusions. Yet, due to inaccurate diagnostic tests, we currently have no way of adequately screening people. The CDC believes that Babesia is the most common tick-borne illness transmitted through blood transfusions. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve any screening test for Babesia, which is a malaria-like disease that can be fatal.
Why didn't the CDC take the opportunity to warn people about this serious public safety issue of blood transfusions when they issued their recent press release about increased rates? The FDA won't allow even gay or bisexual men who have not tested positive for AIDS to donate blood. Why hasn't this same concern for public safety been directed toward the tick-borne illness epidemic?
Of even greater concern is the fact that the CDC has been adamantly denying for years that the Lyme infection can persist past the recommended 2 to 4 weeks of antibiotics, despite a growing body of research that demonstrates otherwise. Seventy-seven peer-reviewed studies from 1977 to 2012 show that the Lyme infection can persist despite the recommended antibiotic treatment. Until the question of ongoing infection is firmly established, how can the CDC and the FDA allow anyone who has tested positive for a tick-borne illness to donate blood?
Lyme patients suffering from devastating neurological and physical symptoms have desperately been trying to get the CDC to acknowledge that they have a chronic infection that requires further treatment. Yet the CDC continues to ignore the problem.
The Lyme community has launched a campaign to expose the CDC's neglect of patients due to conflicts of interest. The "We are the 300,000" movement presents photographs of Lyme patients holding signs saying, "I am one of the 300,000 plus annual cases of Lyme being ignored by the CDC and HMOs." Photographs are coming in from around the country with over 400 posted to date. Four-time Academy Award nominee Jane Alexander has added her photo in support of the cause.
The campaign urges people to write to Lyle Petersen, director of the CDC Division of Vector-Borne Disease, and demand that the CDC eliminate potential conflicts of interest and focus research efforts on establishing whether tick-borne infections persist so that patients can receive proper treatment, and we can safely establish blood donor guidelines.
Jessica Bernstein, Psy.D. is a doctor of psychology who advocates for healthcare reform. She was prompted to write this article out of concern for the future of our nation's democracy and to support all the other activists at risk around the country.
This article was first published at Truthout.