First detected in New Jersey last year, this invasive tick species is "an important vector of human and animal disease agents," according to the CDC. 

By Amanda MacMillan
November 29, 2018

The Asian longhorned tick is an invasive tick species that has recently spread to eight states across the United States and threatens to transmit several serious diseases to people, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warned in a new report on Thursday. 

The tick is "an important vector of human and animal disease agents," states the CDC report. Native to China, Japan, Korea, and the Russian Far East, the Asian longhorned tick had never previously been detected in the U.S. before. That changed in August 2017, when a a sheep in New Jersey was found to be infested with them.

Since then, 53 reports of the tick have been confirmed in seven more states through September 2018: Virginia, West Virginia, New York, Connecticut, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas. The Asian longhorned tick has been found on both people and animals, according to the CDC report.

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On the positive side, the CDC report states that there's no evidence the Asian longhorned tick has transmitted disease to humans or animals in the U.S. But in Asia, it is known to carry a dangerous virus that kills 15% of the people it bites. The tick has spread in recent years to Australia, New Zealand, several Pacific islands, and now to America. 

An invasive tick species surely sounds like something out of a horror film, especially given the explosion of tick populations and tick-borne diseases here in the States in recent years. But before you start freaking out about this specific critter, known to scientists as Haemaphysalis longicornis, let’s put a few things into perspective.

“People should not extrapolate that just because this tick carries a potentially serious virus in the Far East, that next year everyone here will have that same disease,” John Aucott, MD, director of the Lyme Disease Research Center at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, previously told Health. "We don't want to connect dots that may never be connected in real life." 

“We certainly don’t want it spreading all over the country, which is why public health officials should definitely be paying attention to this,” Dr. Aucott said. “But for the general public, there are a lot more important things—both having to do with tick-borne illnesses and other things—that should be of greater concern.”

One of those things is the “very real epidemic” of diseases being spread by ticks native to the United States. “Instead of focusing on the theoretical risk of some exotic imported tick species,” he said, “people should be paying more attention to actually protecting themselves from these much bigger threats.”

Deer ticks, for example (also known as blacklegged ticks), can spread Lyme disease, Powassan virus, and anaplasmosis, among other infections; they can also cause tick paralysis. Their numbers are on the rise throughout the United States, as are the diseases they carry.

RELATED: 11 Ways to Protect Yourself (and Your Pets) From Ticks

According to a recent report from lab-testing service Quest Diagnostics, Lyme disease rates have skyrocketed in recent years. Positive test results have now been reported in all 50 states as well as Washington D.C., and several states reported sharp increases in positive test results between 2015 and 2017. 

That specific report may not offer the most scientifically reliable data, said Dr. Aucott: It hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, it’s based only on tests done by Quest Diagnostics and not by other facilities, and it can only show what state people were in when they tested positive for Lyme disease bacteria—not where they actually were when they were infected.

But in general, he said, the data is in line with other research. “It’s true that Lyme disease has been spreading relentlessly since the 1970s and that it has spread dramatically on the East Coast and in the Upper Midwest especially,” he said.

Other conditions spread by different types of native ticks—like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and alpha-gal syndrome (which involves a sudden allergy to red meat)—have also seen increases in recent years.

These are the truly scary statistics, said Dr. Aucott, and the real reason people need to be vigilant about ticks that might be lurking in their yards and in nearby grasses and forests.

“We’ve gotten across to people the importance of wearing a seatbelt and not drinking and driving, but we haven’t yet gotten the message across that tick-bite prevention is something that people should take just as seriously,” he said.

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