Tick paralysis seems a remote threat

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Dog ticks, like this, are the likely culprits of tick paralysis, though it's rare. — Wiki Commons

If Lyme, tularemia, alpha-gal meat allergy, and the litany of other tick-borne maladies lurking on the Vineyard weren’t enough, consider tick paralysis, a condition brought on by toxic saliva. As the Washington Post recently reported, the ailment rendered a 5-year-old in Mississippi unable to stand and “struggling to speak.” Fortunately, her symptoms began to abate soon after the tick was removed, the Post reported.

“We unromantic tick biologists view the Snow White tale in the light of tick paralysis,” Tufts tick expert Sam Telford wrote in an email to The Times. “Snow White wakes up when the prince leans over. The story is that he kissed her. Well, we think he just pulled a tick off from behind her ear. The response to pulling the tick off is said to be very dramatic. The toxin is being secreted in the tick saliva as the tick is feeding, and it is short-lived … so the moment tick saliva is not being delivered, the paralytic action wears off.”

“Tick paralysis is a rare disease thought to be caused by a toxin in tick saliva,” the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports. “The symptoms include acute, ascending, flaccid paralysis that is often confused with other neurologic disorders or diseases (e.g., Guillain-Barré syndrome or botulism). Within 24 hours of removing the tick, the paralysis typically subsides.”

Telford pegs an abundant Island tick for harboring the paralyzing agent.

“Dog ticks (or wood ticks in the West) are responsible for tick paralysis in North America,” he wrote. “So I would not be surprised to hear of a case on M.V. because, as you know, M.V. is still famous for its dog ticks. I have not heard of a human case from M.V., and I have been working there a long time. It is clear that not every tick has this toxin, but only a small fraction of them.”

Telford said pets, notably dogs, are more prone to suffer from tick paralysis than humans. However, it appears rare even in our four-legged friends.

West Tisbury veterinarian Michelle Jasny said she recalled coming across one unconfirmed case in the mid-1980s, but that’s the extent of her experience with the condition. “I don’t think I have ever seen a case that was confirmed tick paralysis,” she said.

“We haven’t seen it,” said Kiko Bracker, a veterinary criticalist at Boston’s Angell Memorial Hospital. “We see lots of Lyme and anaplasmosis,” he said. And recently hospital staff encountered one case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, he said.

Bracker described the condition as “very rare”.

Islanders can not only take solace in what seems a low probability of coming up against tick paralysis, but unlike so many other troubles that come from these parasites, simply pulling off the tick amounts to a cure.