Reported Cases Of That Meat Allergy Caused By Tick Bites Are Shockingly High In Minnesota
In the last few years, there have been a number of headlines about a frightening tick-borne illness that can cause an allergy to red meat and related products. The condition, called alpha-gal syndrome (AGS), has been associated with tick bites from a specific variety of tick. The culprit is a tick called the lone star tick. The tick is named for the distinctive white star-like shape on the backs of these creatures.
The prospect of a bug bite giving someone an allergy to a broad variety of food items that can be life-threatening is a scary one.
A recent Associated Press report says that as many as 450,000 Americans are now believed to have developed alpha-gal syndrome. The syndrome is usually caused by the transfer of a sugar molecule called alpha-gal from the tick's bite into the bloodstream, causing the condition.
While the CDC has not ruled out that other ticks can also cause alpha-gal syndrome, the lone star tick seems to be the primary culprit in causing this condition. AGS can vary in severity from person to person, but can lead to severe allergic reactions after consuming meat or dairy products.
How common are lone star ticks in Minnesota?
The "home territory" of the lone star ticks is centered in the southeastern part of the United States, ranging as far north as Iowa and Illinois. This puts the home territory right on the doorstep of Minnesota and Wisconsin.
While the map from the CDC below doesn't include Minnesota or Wisconsin as part of this tick's territory, that doesn't mean that lone star ticks can't be found in either state. Moreover, there is a surprisingly high concentration of AGS in Minnesota for being state where the ticks are generally not found. More on that in a bit.
Experts tell WCCO TV that these ticks are still a "really uncommon tick [in Minnesota", however they can be found in the state. An epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health told WCCO that there has yet to be an established population of this tick found in Minnesota.
That said, these ticks can still be found in the state, being moved around by hitching a ride on deer, birds, and other animals. Despite Minnesota having no established populations of lone star ticks, there are a surprising number of cases of AGS that have been reported in Minnesota.
How common are alpha-gal syndrome cases in Minnesota?
CDC data shows that a majority of the cases of AGS in the United States are concentrated in the southeastern part of the country, with the highest concentration of cases through Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and elsewhere in that part of the country. This is in the heart of the known range of the lone star tick.
Looking at a map of reported cases of alpha-gal syndrome, however, there is another area where a number of AGS cases are being reported - Northern Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin.
In data from 2017 through 2022, almost every county in Northern Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin has seen at least 11 suspected AGS cases, with Aitkin County, Lake of the Woods County, and Cook County in Minnesota and Bayfield County in Wisconsin being locations where there have been over 87 reported cases since 2017.
So, while Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin are a ways away from the primary home zone of the lone star tick, there are a lot of cases of the syndrome which is caused primarily by lone star tick bites, according to the Mayo Clinic.
What can you do to prevent alpha-gal syndrome?
- Cover up. Dress to protect yourself when you're in wooded or grassy areas. Wear shoes, long pants tucked into your socks, a long-sleeved shirt, a hat and gloves. Also try to stick to trails and avoid walking through low bushes and long grass. If you have a dog, keep it on a leash too.
- Use bug spray. Apply insect repellent with a 20% or higher concentration of the ingredient DEET to your skin. If you're a parent, put the bug spray on your children. Avoid their hands, eyes and mouths. Keep in mind that chemical repellents can be toxic, so follow directions carefully. Apply products with the ingredient permethrin to clothing, or buy pre-treated clothing.
- Do your best to tick-proof your yard. Clear brush and leaves where ticks live. Keep woodpiles in sunny areas.
- Check yourself, your children and your pets for ticks. Be watchful after you spend time in wooded or grassy areas.
- It's helpful to shower as soon as you come indoors. Ticks often stay on your skin for hours before they attach themselves. Shower and use a washcloth to try to remove any ticks.
- Remove a tick with tweezers as soon as possible. Gently grasp the tick near its head or mouth. Don't squeeze or crush the tick. Pull it off with a careful, steady grip. Once you've removed the entire tick, throw it out. Put on an antiseptic where it bit you. That can help prevent an illness.