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

Chuck Lubelczyk, a vector ecologist for Maine Medical Center Research Institute, displays a vial of live lone star ticks.
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.

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