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Bite from new tick in New England may trigger red meat allergy

A tick species whose bite has been reported to trigger a red meat allergy may be expanding into the northeastern U.S., according to a Dec. 5 report from the New England Journal of Medicine.  

Lone star ticks, who received their name from the single white dot adult females have on their backs, once populated New England until deforestation and a lack of available hosts drove them south. Due in part to a warming climate and increased local deer populations, these ticks have been popping up in parts of Massachusetts this year, according to the report. 

Although lone star ticks have recently been discovered in the southernmost parts of Massachusetts, Paul Killinger, program administrator for the Laboratory of Medical Zoology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said they make up a small portion of the total cases logged by the lab’s TickReport program each year.

“So far, we’ve only received 224 [lone star tick reports] from the state of Massachusetts,” Killinger said. “And to give you some context, we probably get six or more thousand [tick reports] per year from Massachusetts.”

The red meat allergy is induced by an allergic reaction to alpha-gal, a sugar molecule found in most mammals except humans. Symptoms include rashes, hives and nausea as well as difficulty breathing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, Killinger said the likelihood of developing an allergy after being bitten is slim.

“I think it’s useful to emphasize that the alpha-gal allergy, the red meat allergy, is still in the early stages of being understood,” Killinger said. “It is not something that I think researchers who are more familiar with it than me expect a majority of people to experience. It is not really the norm right now.”

Catherine Brown, epidemiologist and public health veterinarian for the state of Massachusetts, wrote in an email that deer — or black-legged — ticks continue to pose a greater threat than lone star ticks as they are the primary carriers of Lyme disease.

Brown wrote that raising public awareness is crucial for combatting the potential risk posed by increased lone star tick populations in the region.

In this situation,” Brown wrote, “the primary response is to include information about this emerging tick species during presentations and conversations with local boards of health, healthcare providers and the public.”

As for tick-borne diseases in general, Killinger said that public awareness is increasing, and yearly infection rates of ticks remain stable.

“It’s hard to say for sure whether or not the number of ticks is increasing,” Killinger said. “But we can say that as we test more and more ticks, the actual percentages that are infected is really not changing. So that is very good news.”

Brighton resident Evan Kesel, 22, said he heard about the lone star tick on a Radiolab podcast episode about a woman who contracted the meat allergy.

“Yeah, it’s kind of f—ed up,” Kesel said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of people up here that really know about the lone star tick in particular. I think there’s a lot of people who are touched by Lyme disease, though.”

Olivia Ryder, 21, of Back Bay, said she has never been bitten by a tick and has not heard about a meat allergy-inducing tick.

“I’m creeped out, honestly,” Ryder said. “I believe it should be talked about more, especially with people who don’t live on the East Coast or in places that have high tick [populations].”

Megan Sutton, 34, of Brighton, said she has not heard about the red meat allergy phenomenon but has seen many ticks in the state.

“We grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts,” Sutton said. “If I’m going outside, I always wear long pants.”

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