THL: Medical firms selling "tick vaccines" with false advertising

The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare points out that tick-borne encephalitis is very rare.

A vaccine exists against the rare TBE disease, but not against ticks themselves or their more common bacterial cargo, Lyme disease. Image: Artyom Geodakyan / AOP

Medical companies this summer are actively marketing vaccinations against tick-borne encephalitis (TBE), a potentially deadly but very rare disease carried by ticks.

While vaccinating against common and dangerous infections is highly recommended, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) says that getting the shot is a waste of time and money outside of a few high-risk regions. It costs upwards of 150 euros for a single round of shots for one person.

Senior physician Tuija Leino says her organisation has had to publish a release stating the facts about TBE to avoid possible panic that Pfizer's aggressive Ticovac-brand ads have induced in some consumers. Even medical professionals have contacted the THL to ask about the newly campaigned vaccine.

The branding includes the slogan, "Even one tick bite can transmit TBE", which Leino says is over the top.

"Most Finns are in no kind of danger at all," she says; and still some 130,000-170,000 doses of Ticovac are sold each year.

The virus only lives in a few specific areas in Finland, making it a non-factor everywhere else. The government subsidises free vaccines for people living in risk zones.

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"The beast: is it where you are?" THL says Pfizer's ad campaign is misleading. Image: Vilma Ruokoski / Yle

Not all ticks

Another problem with the medical marketing is that some providers are calling their product a "tick vaccine", which Leino says implies that getting the shot can somehow drive a burrowed bug out from under a victim's skin. This is not the case.

Risk regions include the Kemi coast in the north, the Raahe archipelago in the north-west, Parainen in the south-west and Sammonlahti in the south-east. But even in these zones only 1-2 percent of local ticks actually carry encephalitis, which also has a low transfer rate.

While caution is key, even in Parainen, one of the most tick-heavy places, the risk of catching full-blown TBE is 0.0002–0.0009 percent, or less than one in a thousand. Also, only 10-30 percent of those who contract the virus present symptoms, and only 20-30 percent of them develop the disease. The death rate of TBE is 0.5–1 percent.

Lyme disease, which ticks may also carry, is more common but routinely treatable with antibiotics. Pfizer's vaccine does not protect against Lyme disease.