Rappahannock County may not have deadly rockets, roadside bombs or Ebola virus, but we do have ticks.
If Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and other assorted commonly known bacteria and viruses transmitted by ticks weren’t enough, now comes word of a sometimes fatal food allergy also transmitted by ticks. Not deer ticks — the culprits for Lyme disease — but so-called lone-star ticks, the most abundant species of tick in the southeastern United States.
Lone-star ticks derive their name from the distinctive, Texas-shaped white splotch seen on the backs of adult females. Adult lone-stars can also carry the pathogens that cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever as well as a cluster of related bacterial illnesses known as ehrlichiosis, plus a rash that manifests in Lyme-like symptoms.
The connection between tick bites and the red-meat food allergy was only recently revealed through research at the University of Virginia, led by Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills. Red meat — specifically a type of sugar called alpha-gal present in it — triggers the allergic reaction. People with the allergy undergo a twentyfold or higher increase in antibodies to alpha-gal after being bitten by the infected ticks.
Reactions can include hives, swelling, vomiting, diarrhea, breathing difficulties and drops in blood pressure. Severity varies among patients, some of whom are so sensitive they must avoid milk as well as vegetable dishes flavored with red meat — even gelatin capsules of diet supplements or foods cooked on the same grill as red meat.
A blood test is used to confirm an alpha-gal allergy. But once the allergy develops, there is as yet no known way to mitigate it. So the best advice is simply not to get bitten in the first place.
That’s easier said than done in a tick-infested place like Rappahannock. Still, these natural enemies seem preferable to the human-caused violence erupting now all around the rest of the world.