By Rick Murphy
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Ticks have plagued East Enders for decades, but the most prevalent nowadays, the Lone Star Tick, has the potential to be the most dangerous of them all. In fact, its larvae are capable of causing a lethal reaction in the most severe cases.
Five years ago The Independent reported what at the time was a unique story – a local man developed a severe allergy to meat after he was infested by Lone Star tick nymphs at Cedar Point Park in East Hampton.
Ivan Peill began experiencing allergic reactions about six hours after he ate a meal – it took some time to determine he had developed an allergy to red meat. A study at the University of Virginia confirmed his suspicions.
Dr. Scott Commins from UVA said this week that the situation has gotten much worse over the last five years, on the East End and in other parts of the country. For one, Lone Stars move very quickly. They also "lay up to 1000 eggs at a time" called "seed ticks," which resemble poppy seeds, Commins said. The seed packs are normally on leafy substances, and not in the deep forest – rather, they are left in populated areas. "They need a blood meal before they will molt," he added.
Many naturalists and scientists believed field mice were one of the many hosts the ticks preyed on. Not the Lone Star, however. "With other types of ticks we use a mouse model but apparently mice are not a natural host for these," Commins said. Deer most assuredly are, however, and the rise in infestations might be directly tied to an increase in the deer population in these parts.
"It could be that it's more prevalent because people are getting out more, but it could be the deer population is driving this," Commins said. "They are becoming bolder, so they are bringing the ticks closer to us." His colleague, allergy researcher Thomas Platts-Mills of UVA, agreed the increasing number of cases is probably a result of the large numbers of larvae and their proximity to humans. "[The Lone Star] larval forms will bite humans, whereas none of the other American tick larvae will do that," he said.
The lone bit of good news is the allergy will fade over time, Commins said – provided the victim isn't bitten again. "Any additional bite raises the level and the allergy returns."
As many locals have learned the hard way, an allergic reaction to meat isn't the only thing to worry about. People have developed hives, cramps, wheezing, rash, and swelling after being bitten – and no one is sure of the long-term affects.
Long Island isn't the only place dealing with the epidemic. Last November at the Annual Scientific Meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI), it was revealed the Lone Star tick is spreading across the southern part of the country, and bringing the meat allergy with it, and has also been diagnosed in Maine.
Allergist Stanley Fineman, M.D., the ACAAI president, explained that Alpha-gal is a sugar carbohydrate found in red meats such as beef, pork and lamb.
"Blood levels of antibodies for alpha-gal in the human body can rise after a single bite from the lone-star tick," he reported. "This can result in allergic symptoms which are usually delayed after meat ingestion and may present as mild hives but may also be a severe, potentially deadly reaction known as anaphylaxis."
According to the Center For Disease Control, Lone Star ticks usually do not carry Lyme disease, though the trademark circular rash may form. Insect repellents like DEET or permethrin are effective preventives, but on a larger scale, Commins said, "it may be if you address the deer issue you're addressing your tick problem."