When it comes to problems caused by ticks, Lyme disease hogs a lot of the limelight.
In fact, the number of tick-borne disease cases is on the rise in the United States. The range of various species of ticks live in North America may be expanding due to climate change. Researchers continue to discover new pathogens that live in ticks.
In my career as a public health entomologist, I've been amazed at the ability of ticks to bounce back from all the ways people try to control them, including with pesticides. Ticks excel at finding new ecological niches for survival.
Ticks can spread bacterial diseases
Certain very small species of bacteria that can cause human diseases, such as rickettsia, ehrlichia and anaplasma, live in ticks. Ticks ingest the bacteria when they drink animals' blood.
Probably the most well-known of these bacterial diseases is Rocky Mountain spotted fever, the most frequently reported rickettsial disease in the world the US, with about 6,000 cases each year.
In the last decade, researchers have found additional new tick-borne viruses in the US About 30 cases of Heartland virus have thus far been identified.
A few cases of a new Thogotovirus called Bourbon virus have been identified in the Midwest and Southern US.
The most bizarre threat from ticks is the "red meat allergy" scientists have recently traced back to tick bites , People can become allergic to eating meat when a tick's saliva passes on the carbohydrate galactose-α-1.3-galactose it had previously picked up in a blood meal from an animal. If prone to allergies, the person can get sensitized to the alpha-gal molecule that's found in animal blood and other tissues.
Then days or weeks later, he or she may develop hives, skin and lips, or even life- threatening anaphylactic shock three to six hours after eating red meat. Meats containing alpha-gal include beef, pork, lamb, squirrel, rabbit, horse, goat, deer, kangaroo, seal and whale.
Overall, people should be aware of what tick-borne diseases are present in their area and use personal protection techniques when outdoors in tick-infested areas. Remember that ticks often come into contact with people via pet dogs or cats. It's a good idea to inspect yourself for ticks after being outdoors in tick-infested areas.
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Jerome Goddard, Extension Professor of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology, Mississippi State University
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