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An electron microscope image of the mouth of an
Argas monolakensis shows why ticks are generally hard to remove once they’ve latched on for a blood meal. Researchers are recognizing that ticks carry a host of nasty diseases, too. Photo courtesy of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases

Ticks that spread Lyme disease don’t always deliver their misery neat. They can serve up a cocktail of pathogens with one infectious bite.

“They are nature’s dirty needle,” said Kathryn Fishman, who suffered for years from fatigue and mental confusion before blood tests revealed she had Lyme and two other lesser-known pathogens. She is office manager for her physician husband’s practice in Maryland and Virginia that focuses on tick-borne diseases.

Lyme disease has gotten the headlines. But the wide array of potential diseases ticks carry is one reason that public health officials remain greatly concerned about the geographic spread – linked to both global warming and suburbanization – of the black-legged tick and other ticks in North America.

Some scientists believe infection with other tick-borne bacteria or viruses may be one reason that many Lyme disease patients feel chronically ill long after treatment. Testing for Lyme may not pick up signs of those other infections. And the drugs used in treating Lyme are not always effective in treating co-infections picked up from ticks.

“Lyme disease is the tip of the iceberg,” cautioned Durland Fish, epidemiologist at Yale School of Public Health. “There are worse diseases coming down the pike.”

Some examples: Red meat allergy

If you enjoy a juicy steak, better avoid the Lone Star tick. This parasite, with a range once limited to the southeastern United States but now extending as far north as the Great Lakes and New England, can trigger an immune response that renders victims allergic to red meat – perhaps permanently. In at least 2,000 known cases, patients suffered severe reactions – from hives to anaphylactic shock – after eating beef, pork or venison, due to what researchers believe is an antibody response to the tick saliva.

The immune system becomes wired to fight not only the tick but any exposure to a carbohydrate called alpha-galactose that is present in the tissues, muscle, fat, and blood of non-primate mammals. Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee said earlier this year that its allergy clinic was seeing one or two new patients with the condition every week.

Scientists are still uncertain if the condition is permanent; most victims are advised to keep epinephrine pens always at hand. The Lone Star tick may not be the only carrier. Swedish researchers last year confirmed that alpha-galactose was present in the European tick,
Ixodes ricinus, the castor bean tick, which also transmits Lyme disease. The same study found that tick-bite victims who have a B-negative blood type are most at risk for developing a red meat allergy. The syndrome is just one reason National Science Foundation-funded researchers said in a recent paper it was important for public health officials to look “beyond Lyme,” and consider the growing risk from other tick species and pathogens.