Parasitic Nightmare: Asian Longhorned Ticks Spreading in U.S.

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As if ticks weren’t scary enough, this highly invasive species can produce thousands of larvae without mating, and it thrives in mowed lawns

In August of 2017, a New Jersey woman found an odd tick on the single pet sheep she kept in her suburban yard. She removed the tick and took it to the local health department for identification. The results confirmed the first Asian longhorned tick (Haemaphysalis longicornis) found in the United States. Even more concerning? The woman’s clothing was found to be covered with thousands of longhorned tick larvae.

An Asian longhorned nymph on the left and an adult female on the right. (CDC / James Gathany photo)

The woman, her sheep, her lawn, home and the surrounding area were immediately treated to kill any ticks and hopefully stop the spread. Things were quiet for a few months. Then, last summer, a Yonkers, New York man, 80 miles away from the New Jersey infestation, found a tick attached to his body. It turned out to be another longhorned tick, the first documented case of the species on a human host in the U.S.

The ticks have been on the move. According to the CDC, they have now been documented in 11 states, including Arkansas, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Where did the longhorned tick come from? Its known home range before the 2017 New Jersey discovery was eastern China and Russia; Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and a few Pacific islands. Entomologists aren’t sure how the tick made it to the U.S., although there have been a couple of documented cases of the ticks on imported livestock that were caught at customs quarantine stations.

A size reference for nymph and adult Asian longhorned ticks. (CDC / James Gathany photo)

While no one in the U.S. has yet become ill as a result of a longhorned tick, there are cases of the ticks having spread dangerous and potentially deadly illnesses, including hemorrhagic fever, in other countries. Dr. Jonathan Larson, extension entomologist and tick specialist at the University of Kentucky, says, “Disease vectors like ticks have to be exposed to a pathogen before they can pass it along. It could be that these invasive ticks are exposed to the same pathogens as our native ticks and pass those along, or we could be looking at an entirely different set of issues with them.”

Perhaps even more worrisome than potential disease transmission is the alarming reproductive rate of the tick. Larson reports that, unlike our native ticks, female longhorned ticks can reproduce asexually, laying thousands of eggs at a time and producing waves of offspring that extract so much blood that they can kill infested livestock. “While we need more research into the exact breeding cycle of these ticks, the rate that they reproduce is alarming,” Larson says. “I can easily see this tick species having a direct impact on wildlife.”

Unlike most ticks, which tend to favor dense vegetation and shady areas, longhorned ticks seem to thrive in even closely mown lawns and fields in direct sunlight, making transfer to humans even more likely. “One of the characteristics of an invasive species is its ability to adapt to a new environment,” Larson says. ”The rapid spread of the Asian longhorned tick tells me they are extremely well suited to our climate, and even cold northern winters don’t seem to have a negative effect on them.”

Be on the lookout for these pesky little threats. (CDC / James Gathany photo)

How can hunters protect themselves from longhorned and other ticks? One way is to wear insect-repelling clothing, like Gamehide’s ElimiTick, which uses Insect Shield Technology to fuse the repellent permanently to the clothing.

Gamehide’s Dave Larsen says the clothing should be just as effective against the Asian longhorned tick as it is against other tick species. “We are currently testing with the longhorned tick, but all research points to the ElimiTick technology working just as well on them as it does all other tick species,” he says. “When ticks encounter the clothing, it immediately starts to affect their nervous system. Within seconds, they jump off to get away. If a tick isn’t able to jump off, it dies in less than a minute.” ElimiTick clothing has been EPA certified as safe for all ages.

If you aren’t wearing insect repelling clothing, the CDC recommends applying approved repellants, such as DEET, picaridin, or permethrin to boots, skin or clothing as directed according to package labels before going outdoors. Once you get home, remove your clothing and inspect it immediately for ticks. Wash clothes or put them in the dryer. Tumbling clothes in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes (longer if damp) should kill ticks. If washing clothes first, use hot water.

After you have inspected and dried clothing, always do a full-body inspection in front of a mirror to locate any ticks that might be on you. The CDC reports that showering within two hours of coming in from the outdoors can reduce the risk of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.

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