Shown here are ixodes scapularis, or black-legged deer ticks, at various stages of development. The parasites are known to transmit Lyme disease and other serious illnesses.  

Before the coronavirus changed the world of religion, retail and recreation, Wendy Rich had to change her lifestyle to distance herself from strangers because of a tick bite.

Rich, a Joplin resident, has alpha-gal syndrome, a condition that manifests itself in humans as a food allergy to any kind of mammal meat — beef and pork most commonly.

“The alpha-gal has absolutely changed every aspect of my life. It affects everyone a little bit differently, and unfortunately I have fume reactions,” Rich said. The word fume refers to gases, dust or smoke given off by a substance that can cause a reaction. “It’s reactions to things that have mammal oils and things like that. Perfumes, candles, air fresheners — a lot of these things have animal oils in them because they make the fragrances last longer. And I will break out into hives, I’ll cough until I get sick, I have really bad reactions, so for me it’s scary even to go to church. People wear perfumes and deodorants, and we all want everyone to wear deodorant, but with my reaction, it makes me real sick if they have animal oils in them.”

The irony is the changes in everyday life caused by the coronavirus have actually made life easier for Rich. People suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder have said the same thing.

“I can do curbside for almost anything now,” Rich said. “We’re having church in the parking lot. I can actually do more now than I could before. My pastor teases me. He says, 'You’re really liking this.' I tell him, 'I hate to say yes because that sounds horrible, but I can do more.' People still think you’re crazy. Even though alpha-gal has become a little more prevalent and people are becoming more aware, a lot of people still don’t understand it.”

Tick-borne conditions

Alpha-gal syndrome is one of the lesser-known diseases and health conditions caused by tick bites, but it’s becoming more common and better known in the medical community.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease and erlichiosis are among the most common on a list of 16 tick-borne diseases on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Alpha-gal syndrome is not on the list because it is an allergic reaction and not thought of as a disease by the medical profession.

Tony Moehr, director of the Jasper County Health Department, said his office has reported four cases of tick-borne diseases in the county so far in 2020 — one case of Lyme disease and three cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

In 2019, the county had 59 cases of tick-borne diseases.

Moehr said people are outside more now with the lockdowns and job losses related to the coronavirus outbreak, but it’s impossible to tell now whether the number of tick-borne disease cases will be lower or higher this year.

He said the coronavirus is affecting how the county responds to tick-borne diseases because everyone in his office is responding to coronavirus cases. Coronavirus, unlike tick-borne diseases, is easily transmissible between people.

“We would still handle the case the same,” Moehr said. “It may be a different priority. When we get a tick-borne illness report in, we might not be able to drop everything and make immediate contact with everybody involved, but they’re already being treated and it’s not something that is spread from person to person, like coronavirus or hepatitis or some of those types of diseases.”

Tick bite prevention

Matt Combes, a stream ecologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, said a variety of ticks bite people in Missouri.

• The Lone Star tick is most common in the spring and is the tick most likely that time of year to latch on to someone who is hiking in the woods or in tall grass.

• The American dog tick is commonly found on pets.

• The deer tick is known to bite people, but it is more common in the fall.

Robbie Doerhoff, a forest entomologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, said a tick’s life cycle is spread out over a year and a half to two years.

“Tick survival, especially young ticks, is increased when we have high humidity and high moisture, to some extent,” Doerhoff said. “If we were to have a wet year, it could affect the tick population a couple of years down the road. It’s not just an immediate thing where it’s wet and a few weeks later we have more ticks. It’s just that they have better survival and they build over time.”

Combes said when he goes out in the field, he soaks his shoes, socks and pants with an insect repellant that contains DEET.

Combes said many department employees who work outside routinely are buying clothes treated with a substance called permethrin to kill the ticks that crawl on them. The clothing is good for as many as 70 wash cycles.

Permethrin is also available from most outdoor retailers in a spray that can be applied to clothes.

“Repellant is good if you’re an occasional outdoors person,” Combes said. “Putting the DEET repellant on is a good way if you’re going out every now and again, but if you’re a person who works or recreates outdoors on more than a weekly basis, then some of the tick-killing clothing or spray you apply to your own clothing is good.”

If you are bitten

Jasper County Health Department Director Tony Moehr said removing a tick as soon as possible after it has bitten someone is key to reducing the chances of a tick-borne disease or a general infection.

He said the Missouri Department Health and Senior Services provides guidance on how to remove a tick.

• Use tweezers and grab the tick close to the skin. Pull it gently; don’t just scrape the tick off. Removing a tick improperly has a greater tendency to cause a tick-borne illness or even just a general infection.

• Check frequently for ticks when you’re out because the longer they remain attached, the more likely they are to be able to transmit a tick-borne illness.

• Use an insect repellant with DEET to drive ticks away.

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