An increase in the number of lone star ticks poses a threat.
By Sam Mason-Jones
The summer of 2014 has witnessed a rise in the transmission of tick-borne diseases, which has coincided with the prevalence of aggressive lone star ticks. It continues a trend which has seen a 126 percent increase in cases of ehrlichiosis, a diseased caused solely by lone star ticks, in the state of New York since 2010.
Ticks have posed a long-standing problem to the people of Long Island. The East End, in particular, has suffered, with the vast majority of its residents having experienced ticks- whether through the occasional bite or by contracting one of the many tick-borne diseases, the most common being Lyme disease.
The first months of this summer, though, have seen a distinct rise in public wariness and worry about the dangers spawned by these belligerent arachnids. Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. noted, “The extent and severity of the tick-borne disease cases on the East End has escalated to the point of a public health crisis.”
Reported cases of Lyme disease in New York state have risen from 5,589 in 2010 to 6,816 in 2013, with the incidence rates of other tick-borne diseases babesiosis and anaplasmosis both doubling in the same time frame.
This mood of raised awareness has been reflected in the decision taken by State Senator Ken LaValle to combat the problem head on. As such, it was reported earlier this month that Senator LaValle had secured $150,000 of state funding specifically for the purpose of fighting tick-borne disease in the East End.
Speaking to this end, Senator LaValle said, “With the high incidence of these tick-borne illnesses on the East End, we need to work to eradicate the diseases and end the transmission to individuals. I look forward to working with the towns and villages to monitor the planned initiatives and the results so we can better develop a long-term effective tick management strategy.”
Gerald T. Simons of Southampton Hospital’s Tick-Born Disease Resource Center explained the surge in cases of tick-borne diseases, and the resultant precautions come as a result of the recent numeral escalation of the particularly malevolent lone star tick.
“Five or six years ago, we would only see a patient with a lone star tick bite on a very rare occasion,” said Mr. Simons, “but now it seems to be the predominant type that we see people being bitten by.”
The amblyomma americanum, or lone star tick, is a species of tick that is easily identifiable by the distinctive white spot found on its back. Found most commonly in wooded areas, particularly in forests with thick underbrush or large trees, it is indigenous to much of the US, with distribution ranging from Texas to Iowa in the Midwest, and east to the coast where they can survive as far north as Maine.
Though the lone star ticks only transmit Lyme disease in extremely rare cases, they often carry the harmful ehrlichia bacteria. Ehrlichia, when transmitted to humans, can produce serious diseases like ehrlichiosis and tularemia.
Unlike Lyme disease, which can lay dormant for weeks without producing any notable symptoms, ehrlichia tends to bring out reasonably obvious symptoms within 48 hours of an infectious tick bite. These symptoms include fatigue, fever, headache, muscle pains, swollen glands and a circular rash, not dissimilar from that brought out by Lyme.
The early arrival of these symptoms often aid the swift diagnosis of diseases caused by the ehrlichia bacteria, and they can therefore be effectively treated with antibiotics. However the lone star tick also causes another, more devastating malady.
Recently there has been a number of cases in which lone star tick bites have caused meat allergies, with victims instilled with an unprecedented and total aversion to red meat. The breaching of this allergy has resulted in hives, swelling and breathing problems, with full anaphylactic shock being brought on in some cases.
This problem is the result of a sugar called alpha-gal being passed from the lone star tick to its human host, who’s immune system detects it as an invader and builds up antibodies against it. Therefore, when the alpha-gal present in red meats like beef, pork and venison comes into contact with the body, the antibodies do what they can to keep out what they believe to be harmful invaders, where the alpha-gal would have previously been broken down by the stomach.
The rising wariness of the lone star tick has been accentuated by its reputation as particularly aggressive, seeming to be more intent on latching on to a host.
“Unlike a deer tick, which will just sit on some grass and wait for a mammal to pass, the lone star tick is sensitive to the carbon dioxide given off by people, and will actively pursue that.” said Mr. Simons. “It is more than capable, for example, of moving across a yard to where it knows people are.”
Mr. Simons went on to explain that the harsher winters experienced by the east coast in recent years had actually exacerbated this problem.
“People are always asking, ‘If we have such a long, cold winter, how are these ticks surviving?’” he added. “And though we’ve seen a slight decrease in the number of tick bites being reported over the winter, the ticks that do survive are the most infectious, the most virulent, and the most angry.”
For more information about tick-borne diseases and prevention, contact the Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center at Southampton Hospital, either at (631) 726-TICK or through its website www.southamptonhospital.org/services/tick-borne-disease-resource-center.