Ticks Causing Diseases and Allergic Reactions on the Rise in Italy
With one of the warmest Octobers in history, the period of activity of ticks, vectors of diseases, also increased. The National Arbovirus Surveillance System, diseases caused by viruses transmitted via bite or sting, of the Higher Institute of Health promptly monitors the situation. Among the most affected areas is the North-East of Italy, where the Istituto zooprophylattico delle Venezie recorded 13 cases of tick-borne encephalitis and 5 of tick-borne viral infection in 2023. The tick is also responsible for the spread of the so-called ‘alpha-Gal syndrome’ which is much better known in the United States, where a surge in cases has been noted, but which is also alarming Europe and therefore Italy.
It is an allergic reaction that is triggered after ingesting certain foods, mainly red meat, hence the name ‘barbecue syndrome’. “Alpha-Gal Syndrome – recently explained Cosby Stone, researcher of allergology and immunology at Vanderbilt University (USA) – is due to the bite of the Ixodes tick, known as woodland tick, which can inject the α-Gal carbohydrate into the affected subject present in his saliva. This triggers a sensitization of the immune system with the production of IgE antibodies directed against alpha-Gal, and responsible for allergic reactions.”
“The diagnosis of ‘Alpha-Gal Syndrome’ is generally complex and can take time since symptoms, such as hives, diarrhea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, swelling, can appear several hours after eating red meat. In reality there are many foods that contain alpha-Gal, all of animal origin, such as cow’s milk, or fats that can be used for cooking foods in general”, highlighted Stone.
In 70% of cases, the infection presents with mild symptoms, while in the remainder, after an incubation period ranging from 3 to 28 days, flu-like symptoms appear such as high fever, headache, sore throat, asthenia, myalgia, and arthralgia. In 20-30% of these cases, central nervous system disorders appear after a symptom-free interval. European subtype infection can then be further complicated with long-term neurological consequences.
In Italy, there is a company that works in the biomedical field that has developed a test on alpha-Gal and is able to measure its level in foods and medical devices of biological origin, such as heart valve bioprostheses, which are constructed with bovine and porcine fabrics. BCI (Biocompatibility Innovation) is collaborating with the medical industry in the biomaterials sector precisely because these, in many cases, contain alpha-Gal and trigger immune-type reactions. The patented ‘Facta’ technology, developed by BCI, can inhibit allergic reactions caused by biological devices because it is capable of inactivating alpha-Gal.
“With our treatment – explained Alessandro Gandaglia, CEO of the BCI startup – we manage to almost completely neutralize the presence of alpha-Gal and therefore avoid adverse reactions in the patient. The American data on allergic reactions to tick bites is worrying; if these people were to be forced to use bioprostheses in the future, it would be a serious problem from a health point of view. For them, in fact, the consequences could put their lives at risk.
“Ticks – recalled Antonia Ricci, general director of IzsVe – play the role of vectors of the infection, while wild animals, especially rodents, are the reservoir of the virus. Fortunately in Italy and in particular in the Triveneto, where their presence is higher, the cases found are few, and the neuroinvasive forms are truly rare. As an Institute, however, we keep our guard up through the surveillance activities described in the National Arbovirus Plan and by guaranteeing operational support to the local health authorities, for example, in the case of specific sampling in areas with risk.”