Ask anyone about spring and summer of 2017 — hunters, hikers, fishers, parents, doctors, entomologists or epidemiologists — and they will tell you ticks are bad this year.
“Because of the moisture we’re getting and the past three years of mild winters, we’re going to have a high tick population,” said Oklahoma State University entomologist Justin Talley. “We just haven’t had any winter, any significant, prolonged winter temperatures to knock them back.”
The greater concentration of the creepy crawlies brings with it more than just cases of woodland heebie geebies. Ticks can transmit serious — sometimes deadly — diseases and, some say, a nasty allergy to red meat that can be deadly as well.
With the variety of ticks, identifying which kind has bitten you, and the number of illnesses that can result can become confusing. Experts say it’s good to be aware of the potential illnesses, but the key things are preventing exposure, proper removal of a biting tick and knowing the signs of illness.
“It can be confusing, that’s why we always come back to prevention and avoidance,” said Rachel Clinton, epidemiologist with the Oklahoma State Department of Health. The department issued a warning this week alerting Oklahomans to the high number of ticks and risk of disease.
Oklahoma ranks among the states with the highest rates of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis and tularemia, and May through August are the months when ticks are most active, she said.
Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness is another sickness similar to Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease, which are characterized by rash and flu-like symptoms.
The Bourbon and Heartland viruses, which resulted in rare but highly publicized fatalities from 2012 through 2014, still are studied but new cases have not been reported the past two years, Clinton said.
The headline-grabber already this season is Powassan virus, which has been around for decades but made news in the Northeast and Great Lakes states recently with more cases in recent years.
Reports note it is of concern because it is more deadly and transmitted more quickly than Lyme disease. However, Centers for Disease Control data shows 75 cases of Powassan documented the past 10 years in those regions, while Lyme disease cases are in the hundreds of thousands.
Oklahomans are at very low risk of contracting Powassan or Lyme diseases, however.
Doctors can test for both Lyme disease and Powassan viruses in Oklahoma, but the risk of exposure is minimal and no locally contracted cases have been reported, Clinton said.
Tally said Oklahoma does have the black-legged ticks that transmit Lyme disease and has the mice that are the common source of the infectious bacteria, but in Oklahoma the ticks most often attach to more plentiful reptiles and amphibians.
“Most people think that sounds odd,” he said. “I have a photo of a snake that is absolutely covered with ticks.”
Specter of alpha-gal
Several Oklahomans who frequent a Facebook page devoted to alpha-gal allergy say Oklahoma’s common lone star tick is a cause of the allergy, which leaves them unable to eat red meat and other products associated with mammals.
The state does not track reports of allergic reactions, Clinton said.
Talley said the scientific community still is somewhat divided on the cause of alpha-gal, that it might, or might not be, associated with ticks.
“There is a study that was done and peer-reviewed, but it’s not in entomological journals,” he said. “It relied on a lot of conjecture, it’s a difficult thing to document.”
People who have been bitten don’t think it’s conjecture, however.
Danny Cahill, a longtime land surveyor and a winner of The Biggest Loser television show, dedicated his column for his trade group magazine this month to his experience with alpha-gal.
“Land surveyors have lots of run-ins with ticks,” he said.
He was bitten by a large number of ticks and chiggers during a surveying job last September, he said. “It was the worst I’d ever seen. They were all over me,” he said.
Two weeks after that incident he started breaking out in hives, a problem that came back time and again. In November, he had a shortness of breath and thought he might be having a heart attack. He took himself to the hospital, but all seemed well.
Months passed with more problems. Allergies were suspected but his doctor couldn’t narrow it down and he requested an appointment with an allergist.
“Finally, after all that time they figured out it was alpha-gal. I’m allergic to beef, pork and lamb,” he said. “It’s a dangerous allergy because it’s a delayed reaction. You eat and then a few hours later you have the reaction, hives, rashes, itching and anaphylaxis. It can be deadly. I carry epipens with me all the time now.”
What exactly causes alpha-gal isn’t known medically, but to Cahill the cause seems obvious.
“It could have been the chiggers instead of the ticks, but it seems pretty obvious to me,” he said. “I just want to get the word out so other people aren’t blindsided. If you know you’ve been bitten by a tick and you have those symptoms, you should get checked.”