Beware the lone star tick

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A week ago I commented on tick-borne illnesses. Since then the December issue of Discover magazine arrived, containing a lengthy article by Wendy Orent titled, “Southern Gothic, the Confounding Debate over Lyme Disease in the South.”

The article depicted an enlarged color photo of a female lone star tick that shows a conspicuous yellow spot on its back, the feature from which the common name is derived.

The gist of the article is the dispute as to whether Lyme disease occurs in the South.

Some experts, such as Dr. Kerry Clark, a medical entomologist at the University of North Florida, are convinced that the disease or something closely resembling it does occur. He was investigating tick populations around Fayetteville, Georgia, at the request of Liz Schmitz, president of the Georgia Lyme Disease Association, who told him how many people in her community south of Atlanta had been sickened after being bitten by ticks.

He drug a white flannel cloth in habitats deemed suitable for ticks and described how “hungry, aggressive lone star females … seemed to burst out.” He said in less than an hour, he had collected hundreds of adult and younger nymphs.

He did not give the sex ratio in his sample. Male lone star ticks don’t have the light spot on their backs, but have light speckles or streaks along the edges of their dorsum.

During the expedition, Clark guesses, is when a lone star tick nestled in his hair, and when he found it a few days later, “it had already deposited its bacterial load into my body.” Since that day almost three years ago, Clark says he suffers from pounding headaches, fatigue, odd twitches, and “fuzziness.”

Weeks-long courses of antibiotics make him feel better, he says, but when he goes off drugs, the symptoms return.

The article reports on other people from suburban areas in Georgia and many other places in the Southeast getting sick from what seem to be tick-borne illnesses. One such sick patient was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and was sent home to die. A sample of the man’s blood was sent to Dr. Clark, who found in it evidence of the pathogen that causes Lyme disease.

The man began taking antibiotics and reports that he now feels better than he has in years.

Clark tested his own blood and found traces of the Lyme disease pathogen along with a similar one usually found in rabbits.

Many Lyme disease researchers, including some from the National Institute of Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, refuse to believe that Lyme disease occurs in the South. In the Northeast, the vectors for Lyme disease are nymphs of black-legged ticks, and in the South nymphs of the ticks rarely bite humans, but the adults do.

The adults are more easily detected and can be removed before they transmit the disease.

Erythma migrans is a roundish, gradually spreading red rash, the “classical signature” of the bite of a Lyme disease infected tick in the Northeast. The bite of a lone star tick can also result in erythma migrans, but when it occurs, it is referred to as Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness, and is relatively benign, usually producing only the flu-like symptoms characteristic of early Lyme disease.

So, whether lone star ticks can cause Lyme disease or one resembling Lyme disease continues to ignite bitter controversy. But reports that thousands of people in the South suffer from tick-borne illnesses similar to Lyme disease seem to suggest that lone star ticks may be the transmitters.

The late specialist Ed Masters insisted to the end of his life that patients sick from either Lyme or a Lyme-like illness be administered antibiotics. He said, “Absence of proof is not proof of absence.”

Lone star ticks are also the primary vectors of human ehrlichiosis and Heartland illness and are also capable of transmitting tularemia.

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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