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How one local man's immunity to ticks could save us all

Some critters develop an immune response that attacks certain proteins in the ticks' saliva.

Photo by Mislav Maohnic

Richard Ostfeld says he is lucky to have been bitten by ticks so much.

That's because now, when a tick bites him, it usually dies.

Ostfeld is a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook. For decades, he has studied ticks and tick-borne diseases, primarily in the forests and fields of the mid-Hudson Valley.

tick dragging rick ostfeld
Dr. Richard Ostfeld surveys ticks collected on a white drag cloth at a field site on the Cary Institute's campus. Credit: © Robin Moore

During the Poughkeepsie Journal's forum on Lyme disease last month, Ostfeld told the overflow audience at Marist College that he has been bitten so frequently by ticks over the years, he has developed an acquired immunity to the bite itself.

"I develop a burning, itching feeling that wakes me up in the middle of the night, even if it is just a tiny, little larva," he said.

Most of the time, the offending tick is dead. If not, its minutes are numbered.

All of this happens just as the tick is beginning to feed, he said.

Ostfeld ends up with a welt lasting for days. But the ticks never get much of a chance to pass along any disease.

Ostfeld said there are studies suggesting the same thing happens in animals. Some critters develop an immune response that attacks certain proteins in the ticks' saliva.

"And the feeding success by the ticks goes plummeting," he said. "It goes down at different rates depending on the host, and depending on how many times the host has been exposed."

All of this suggests, Ostfeld said, that there is potential for a vaccine to trick our immune system into thinking that it has been exposed in the past.

"That is what vaccines do," he said. "So there is every biological reason to expect that an anti-tick vaccine could be developed for people."

In 2013, scientists funded by the European Union began an effort to do just that.

The idea here is to create a vaccine that will stop the tick from being able to transmit the disease by undermining proteins in its saliva.

If you can do that, you can potentially stop not only the spread of Lyme disease, but also the increasing number of more deadly diseases such as those caused by the Powassan virus.

Vaccines, as Ostfeld warned, are tricky things.

It's hard not only to predict how a potential vaccine may behave, but also how it will be received by the public.

There remains, among many, an aversion to vaccines of any kind, based on an often misguided belief that the vaccines cause dangerous side effects. The debate following the recent measles outbreak comes to mind here.

That's what happened with the last Lyme vaccine.

Lymerix was approved and released in 1998 and gone — off the market — in fewer than four years.

Some believed the vaccine caused early onset arthritis, and that in turn led to a class-action lawsuit.

Its maker pulled the vaccine, citing poor sales, despite the fact that a 2001 U.S. Food and Drug Administration study found no link between Lymerix and early or late onset arthritis.

Sometimes, it doesn't matter what the science says.

During the Journal's forum, it was fascinating to watch how much of the discussion was focused on all of the issues surrounding the treatment of Lyme disease.

You had questions about doctors, treatment guidelines, medical politics, insurance coverage — you name it.

It's human nature, after all. You are in pain. You want the pain to go away.

But far too few of the audience's questions were aimed at how to ensure the pain never gets there in the first place.

These include not only a vaccine that would defeat a tick's ability to transmit the disease, but other efforts such as tick-control measures or even longer-term things like fostering biodiversity, which has been linked to lower rates of tick-borne diseases.

I've seen this discussion dynamic time and again.

People want to be fixed.

But they don't want to fix the problem.

Hopefully, the Europeans will teach us a thing or two.

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