If the Lyme disease epidemic, carried by black-legged deer ticks, weren’t enough of a problem, the East End is now infested with lone star ticks, which carry their own, though lesser-known, illnesses, such as the alpha-gal allergy, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, and anaplasmosis.
The Independent broke the story of the first diagnosed alpha-gal reaction, a severe allergy to red meat triggered by a bite from the lone star tick. For some people with severe allergies, that could mean a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis as their immune system releases chemicals that flood the body. This can lead to anaphylactic shock.
Dr. Scott Commins, an allergist and immunologist then associated with the University of Virginia, was interviewed in this newspaper in 2009 after a local man, Ivan Peill, developed a severe allergy to meat after he was bitten by lone star tick nymphs at Cedar Point Park in East Hampton. Dr. Erin McGintee, a Southampton-based specialist in the field, has said she’s treated 450 cases since.
Commins was one of the first researchers to pinpoint the allergy. Technically speaking, the alpha-gal allergy, also known as meat allergy or Mammalian Meat Allergy, is a reaction to galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose (alpha-gal). “The body is overloaded with immunoglobulin E antibodies on contact with acarbohydrate” transferred to the victim by a tick. “A delayed allergic response which is triggered by the consumption of mammalian meat products,” occurs up to eight hours after consuming the meat according to researchers.
Commins told The Independent recently he has been researching the allergy ever since, with shocking results. “At first we thought it was only the lone star but now we’re seeing it in places where there are no lone star ticks.”
Dr. Anne Marie Wellins, who is on the advisory panel of the Regional Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, pointed out one factor is the migration of ticks. “The lone star used to be only down south,” she pointed out. One reason could be the milder winters, another factor could include bird migration. Whatever the case, the East End has proven to be fertile ground for the creatures.
Zachary Cohen, one of the hosts at a deer forum on August 20 (see accompanying story), pointed out the lone star is much more aggressive in finding hosts. “They are hunters,” Cohen said. They will travel hundreds of feet, and once again, deer are a most convenient host.
Lone star ticks feed on the blood of various animals (domesticated and wild) as well as humans. The tick was at first not considered a nuisance as it does not transmit Lyme disease, but more recent studies have shown that this species can transmit various other pathogens to humans and other animals, such as those that cause ehrlichiosis, rickettsiosis, tularemia, and theileriosis.
Each year there are “many billions of ticks and hundreds of thousands of tick-borne disease cases estimated in the U.S.,” said Christopher Paddock, MD, of the federal Centers for Disease Control. Paddock specializes in rickettsial infections, or spotted fevers, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, typhus, anaplasmosis, and ehrlichiosis.
There have been several fatalities caused by tick-borne illnesses. Unfortunately, one of the ticks whose bite brings life-threatening illness may be heading our way: The East Asian or long-horned tick. Discovered on a New Jersey sheep farm in late 2017, it is known to transmit severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome. This potentially fatal disease causes low platelet and low white blood cell counts. The tick was also found in another New Jersey county. Scientists at Rutgers University are looking at ways to eliminate the tick, which is hard to detect on animals and people.