Dog owners and veterinary associations in the United Kingdom have been warning of a rash of dangerous and even lethal side effects from a popular vaccine designed to protect dogs from a rare and mild illness.
The disease in question, leptospirosis, can be serious in both dogs and humans, but most cases are mild. It is spread via the urine of infected wild and domestic animals, typically mice and rats, and is most common in poor and rural regions of tropical countries or Eastern Europe. It is not common in the United Kingdom. For this reason, the vaccine is considered optional, rather than required or even recommended.
Seizures, immune failure and death
The leptospirosis vaccine, Nobivac L4, is produced by Merck subsidiary MSD Animal Health, which says that despite its optional status, it is one of the most widely used dog vaccines. More than a million doses of L4 are used in the United Kingdom each year. According to the company, the shot should only be given to dogs older than nine weeks, with a followup dose a month later and a yearly booster.
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) disagrees with this recommendation, warning that the vaccine is particularly hazardous for puppies younger than 12 weeks. The L4 vaccine is “associated with as many or more adverse reactions than occur for any other” optional vaccine, the WSAVA says.
According to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) of the British government, since the newest version of the vaccine was introduced three years ago, there have been more than 2,000 reports of serious adverse effects, including more than 120 deaths. The VMD is now monitoring the vaccine, but has not said whether it will consider pulling it from the market.
Known adverse effects from the vaccine include blindness, swollen glands, seizures and anaphylactic or immune reactions. In 2014, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) added a warning label to the vaccine highlighting the risk of “anaphylaxis and various immune-mediated conditions such as anaemia, thrombocyte-penia and arthritis.” The WSAVA recommends the shot not be given to dogs younger than 16 weeks.
However, British vets are regularly giving the shot to dogs as young as seven weeks – younger than recommended by the EMA, the WSAVA or even the manufacturer – without warning of the potential hazards.
Vets in ‘denial’
According to spaniel breeder Bridgette Evans, every dog she has given the L4 vaccine to has suffered an adverse reaction. Out of one litter of six pups, every single one developed swollen glands, in some cases as big as tennis balls. One of the dogs died within three weeks of the shot.
Carol Blackburn-Harvey, another breeder, said her dog became “overbalanced” and unable to walk three weeks after getting the shot, and died soon after.
“Vets are not willing to admit or are in denial about the risk posed by the vaccine – it can kill perfectly fit and healthy dogs,” Evans said.
Many pet owners believe that the VMD is concealing the scale of the problem by under-reporting the number of dogs affected, and that it isn’t taking a hard enough line against manufacturer MSD.
In fact, MSD itself seems to have admitted some fault, since it is known to have paid at least one customer’s vet bills for damage resulting from the shot.
Foot-dragging by the VMD makes it all the more important that dog owners report any suspected negative effects from the L4 shot.
“It is critical that pet owners report any suspected adverse reactions to their vets so they can be thoroughly and scientifically investigated and reported to the veterinary medicines regulators,” said Gudrun Ravetz, junior vice president of the British Veterinary Association.
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