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Concerns over lesser-known tick-borne illnesses on the rise

07/14/2017 6:00 AM |

Summer on the North Fork comes with warnings about ticks and concerns about the illnesses they can transmit, such as Lyme disease. But lately other lesser-known tick-borne ailments are grabbing the attention of East End locals, who reach out to experts because they are concerned the situation is worsening.

They may have heard of Powassan virus, a rare but serious disease spread by the same ticks that carry Lyme disease; or perhaps galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose — alpha-gal, for short — an allergy to red meat caused by a Lone Star tick bite. Area experts on both conditions have shared the key things people should know about these illnesses.

Powassan virus, or POW, can be transmitted in just 15 minutes, whereas other bacteria can take 24 or 36 hours to infect someone, said Dr. Scott Campbell, director of the Suffolk County Arthropod-Borne Disease Laboratory.

“This message is: It’s important to do frequent tick checks and remove ticks as soon as possible because of this quick transmission,” he said.

The good news, Dr. Campbell said, is that infection rates for POW are very low and no cases have been reported in Suffolk County, even through POW has been found in Long Island’s deer tick, or blacklegged tick, population for years. Another lineage of the disease is also carried by woodchuck ticks, but those rarely bite humans, according to Dr. Campbell.

Between 2006 and 2015, New York State had 19 cases of POW out of a nationwide total of 77 reported cases, with most found in Minnesota and Wisconsin and a few spread among other Northeastern states, according to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Eight cases resulted in death, according to the CDC.

Symptoms of POW infection include fever, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures and memory loss, according to the CDC.

As for alpha-gal, Dr. Erin McGintee, an allergist in Southampton, began diagnosing the meat allergy in 2010 and currently sees close to 400 patients with alpha-gal.

It’s unusual compared to other food allergies, she said, in that reactions to it can be delayed anywhere between three to eight hours. That difference might make it unclear to some what caused the symptoms, which include hives, nausea, stomach cramps or indigestion.

“People will eat a burger for dinner, then in the middle of the night have an allergic reaction,” Dr. McGintee said. “They might not make any sort of association with what they ate. Food allergy might not even come to their mind.”

Cathy Simicich of Mattituck noticed symptoms of the allergy two years ago after being bitten by a Lone Star tick. She said she’s had to carry an EpiPen while waiting for the allergy to subside.

“You don’t know until something happens to you,” Ms. Simicich said.

Meat allergies are uncommon, Dr. McGintee said, but are starting to be seen more on the East End. The largest window of risk is within a couple of weeks of getting a bite, so Dr. McGintee’s advice is to avoid red meat afterward and gradually introduce it back into the diet. She monitors her patients’ antibody levels until they are low enough to reintroduce red meat.

“Just getting the bite doesn’t mean you’re going to get the allergy,” she advised.

Suffolk County is optimal when it comes to tick hosts because the region has a large deer population.

“If you have a healthy, large deer population, there are more hosts for these ticks to feed on,” Dr. Campbell said. “They will feed on other animals, but deer have huge ranges. They move a lot, they pick up a lot of ticks.”

But this wasn’t always the case, according to John Rasweiler, a physiologist and member of Suffolk County’s tick advisory committee. He remembers only being concerned about dog ticks on his Nassau Point property until the late 1990s, “but then the deer arrived” and the concern grew to include Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

“My great concern is our recent history with ticks and tick-borne diseases,” he said. “It really does not encourage optimism.”

Mr. Rasweiler said more needs to be done to control the deer population. Recreational hunting as it is now is not enough, he said, adding that he would advocate for more incentives for hunters.

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Courtesy photo: The connection between the red meat allergy and the Lone Star tick (pictured) went undiscovered until 2009. (Credit: Cornell Cooperative Extension)

Related coverage:

North Fork residents share their stories of tick-borne illness

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