Mysterious ticks from Asia that can carry a deadly virus are now spreading in the US --  and efforts to kill them are failing

Shutterstock/MR.AUKID PHUMSIRICHAThe fact that the ticks survived both the mid-Atlantic winter and eradication attempts is extremely bad news.
  • Ticks found on an Icelandic sheep in New Jersey last November were identified as East Asian longhorned ticks.
  • These ticks can carry a deadly virus known as SFTS and may also be able to transmit Lyme Disease and other pathogens.
  • The ticks survived the winter and have survived efforts to eradicate them.

It wasn’t just one strange tick that caused Hunterdon County Health Department officials in New Jersey to start panicking when a resident showed up to ask about what she found crawling all over her sheep.

There were what turned out to be – on the resident, her sheep, and in the paddock – hundreds of them.

These ticks were of a sort that had never been seen in the US before. They were Haemaphysalis longicornis, longhorned or bush ticks from East Asia. In Asia and Australia, they have appeared in such numbers that they have killed cattle by draining them of their blood, exsanguinating them. And they have been known to carry a potentially deadly virus that can cause severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome (SFTS), which first emerged in China in 2009 and has been spreading rapidly since then.

Efforts to wipe these ticks out in New Jersey have been failing, and there are now thousands of them there, according to a local news report by CBS New York.

And while the first ticks tested back in November didn’t show signs of SFTS or Lyme disease, which they may be able to transmit as well, experts are still concerned that some of the ticks could be carrying pathogens. The recently collected specimens are being tested now.

“It has the potential [to carry SFTS],” microbiologist James Occi told CBS NY. “That’s why we’re worried.”

H longicornus invasive speciesRainey et al, Journal of Medical Entomology, 2018The sheep’s ear alone had samples from all life stages of the tick.

A mysterious and dangerous pest

The fact that the ticks survived both the mid-Atlantic winter and eradication attempts is extremely bad news.

No one knows where the ticks came from in the first place. The Hunterdon resident’s 12-year-old Icelandic sheep “had no history of travel outside the country,” researchers wrote in a report about the infestation.

They treated the sheep several times and tried to eliminate the pests from the paddock. They didn’t find any ticks there by mid-November of 2017, but temperatures had dropped below freezing by then, which meant the creatures had possibly retreated underground.

That turned out to be the case. As CBS reported, lab tests have also shown that a number of the ticks survived carbon dioxide traps as well, making them resilient little creatures.

As an invasive species, these ticks have a bad reputation.

The species can be parthenogenetic, meaning the ticks can reproduce asexually, essentially cloning themselves (this study provides more details on the unique reproductive processes of these particular ticks).

Australia and New Zealand have had serious problems with this tick, which is capable of intense infestations and appearing in very large numbers.

And aside from SFTS and potentially Lyme disease, these ticks are also known to carry diseases like Anaplasma,Ehrlichia, Borrelia, and a form of spotted fever, according to the original report about the infestation.

“[W]e advocate continued vigilance because even if this species is not already established in the United States, suitable hosts and habitats are common and widespread here,” that report’s authors wrote.

And the fact that these ticks are still around could mean that tick season in New Jersey and the Northeast might be even worse than normal this summer and for years to come.

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