Jun 26, 2018

Q&A: Allergist Scott Commins on the dangers of the lone star tick

Live lone star ticks in a vial. Photo: Portland Press Herald via Getty

Ticks are associated with plenty of diseases, from ehrlichiosis to Lyme disease. But perhaps the most relevant tick-borne illness this bug season is one carried by lone star ticks, whose saliva carries a protein that creates an allergy to red meat.

What's new: Scott Commins, an Associate Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics at UNC Chapel Hill saw his first case of tick-related alpha-gal allergies in 2007, and documented two dozen cases in 2009. That number has since grown to more than 5,000. Now, he's working to develop a vaccine to cure the allergy.

Q&A with Commins

Commins spoke to Axios to answer the biggest questions about the alpha-gal allergy and how he plans to cure it.

How long the allergy lasts:

"Luckily, the meat allergy does not seem to be permanent for most people. It generally lasts two to three years, but additional tick bites will bring it back."

What a cure might look like:

"We recently identified a protein in tick saliva that we believe could be really important in triggering the meat allergy. We plan to isolate that protein and inject it into mice to see if we can develop a vaccine."

What makes this allergy so unusual?

"It can affect someone who has safely eaten meat for their entire lives, so it can come on as an adult very much out of the blue. It doesn’t seem as though you can be predisposed to this allergy, it seems to affect people who have seasonal or pet allergies and those who have no experience with allergies in their life equally."

Why the issue has taken off this year:

"The idea of what a food allergy is has broadened, and that's helped us, because now people can more easily link hives or GI distress to food they had a few hours before, And have a blood test, which helps physicians and providers give an answer. That was not around when we started — we developed it.

"On top of that, diet is a very personal and important thing to many people, and many adults don't want to lost the ability to eat meat."

Be smart (and safe): The allergy can be hard to spot, and reaction is rarely immediate or like most food allergies (think hives, swelling). It can occur hours later and often involves stomach pain.

Blood tests can determine whether a patient has the allergy. Additionally, Commins monitors cases through crowd-sourced data on ZeeMaps.

Go deeper

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 3 a.m. ET: 665,164 — Total deaths: 30,852 — Total recoveries: 140,225.
  2. U.S.: Leads the world in cases. Total confirmed cases as of 3 a.m. ET: 124,665 — Total deaths: 2,191 — Total recoveries: 1,095.
  3. Federal government latest: President Trump announces new travel advisories for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, but rules out quarantine enforcement. Per the CDC, residents of those states must now "refrain from non-essential domestic travel for 14 days," with the exception of critical infrastructure industry workers.
  4. State updates: Alaska is latest state to issue a stay-at-home order — New York is trying to nearly triple its hospital capacity in less than a month and has moved its presidential primary to June 23. Some Midwestern swing voters who backed Trump's handling of the virus less than two weeks ago are balking at his call for the U.S. to be "opened up" by Easter.
  5. World updates: In Spain, over 1,400 people were confirmed dead between Thursday to Saturday.
  6. 🚀 Space updates: OneWeb filed for bankruptcy amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
  7. Hollywood: Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have returned to U.S. after being treated for coronavirus.
  8. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk
  9. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

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Coronavirus updates: Global death toll tops 30,000

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens and confirmed plus presumptive cases from the CDC

The novel coronavirus has now killed more than 30,000 people around the world — with Italy reporting over 10,000 deaths, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: The number of deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. surpassed 2,000 on Saturday. The United States leads the world in confirmed coronavirus infections — more than 124,000 by early Sunday. The number of those recovered from the virus in the U.S. passed the 1,000-mark on Saturday evening.

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Gilead expands access to experimental coronavirus drug in emergency cases

Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Gilead Sciences CEO Daniel O’Day said in an open letter Saturday the company is expanding access to its experimental anti-coronavirus drug remdesivir to include severely ill COVID-19 patients.

The big pig picture: President Trump has called the antiviral drug "promising," but the results of six clinical trials on this investigational medicine are still being conducted, so its effectiveness the treatment of the novel coronavirus has yet to be proved. The World Health Organization is involved in the tests.

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