For years, the health risks from the Lone Star tick, which originated in Texas, were confined to the southern states.
But now, researchers have found the tick is traveling outside of its normal territory, which has raised public health concerns. If bitten by a Lone Star tick, a person can develop an allergy to red meat called Galactose Alpha-1.
ABC News recently reported that the Lone Star tick population is steadily increasing because of the mild winters and decrease in cold snaps in recent years. Instead of breeding in and around Texas, the tick population is growing so large that the insects have traveled as far as New England, spreading their impact to new hosts.
“We saw a trend in positive results to the Southeastern U.S…but found positive rates (of Lone Star tick population) varying from 4 percent to 23 percent outside of the southern region and stretching as far west as Hawaii,” Michelle Altrich, director of Viracor-IBT Laboratories, told NPR News.
According to an NPR report, the growth in the white-tailed deer population might have something to do with the movement of the Lone Star tick. NPR reports that the white-tailed deer is the Lone Star tick’s largest source of food, as well as its primary host.
Dr. Goudarz Molaei, an epidemiologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experimental Station, said there might be other motives for the tick’s transportation patterns.
“There are some suggestions that regional climate change or global warming is a factor in the northward expansion of the Lone Star tick, Amblyomma americanum,” Molaei said.
He said that the constant change in land use might be affecting the movement of the tick population.
“The degree of forest cover and urbanization might be facilitating the range expansion of Lone Star tick,” he said.
Molaei said there was “no direct evidence to link the rise in deer population” to the northward expansion of the tick. However, he added, “Such a possibility cannot be entirely ruled out…Deer provide ample food/blood source for other questing ticks in our region, (so) they could also serve as hosts for the Lone Star ticks.”
Molaei said that birds have a bigger role in the movement of the Lone Star tick from the southern states to the upper east.
As concern for the Lone Star tick grows, researchers have started to find more severe effects of the tick’s bite — other than an itchy, red bump.
“The Lone Star tick is a major vector of several viral, bacterial, and protozoan pathogens affecting humans and other animals in the United States,” Molaei said.
One of the oddest viral pathogens that Molaei describes is an allergy called Galactose Alpha-1, or alpha-gal for short, which affects the consumption of meat from non-primate mammals, such as beef, pork and lamb.
According to the website, Alpha-gal Awareness, “Symptoms of alpha-gal occurring several hours after ingesting food include upset stomach, diarrhea, hives, itching and/or anaphylaxis (sudden weakness, swelling of the throat, lips and tongue, difficulty breathing and/or unconsciousness).”
The syndrome of alpha-gal was first described in 2009 in a report that detailed 24 cases, according to a study by researchers with the University of Virginia Health System. “By 2012, it was clear that there are thousands of cases across a large area of the southern U.S,” the study said. However, cases of alpha-gal are underestimated because not everyone connects consumption of meat to their symptoms because of a four to six hour delayed reaction.
Molaei said that while concerns about the migration of the tick are warranted, he does not view the situation as a public health crisis.
“Even though we are witnessing population expansion. . . still we are seeing relatively small numbers in comparison to that of other tick species,” he said.
Caeli Rice is a student at Lyme-Old Lyme High School.