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Invasive fire ants may be reducing the spread of meat allergies

Friday, June 26th 2020, 10:04 am - The ants may be solving one problem, but the invasive species is damaging crops and remains a risk to humans and animals.

Invasive fire ants are common in the Gulf Coast and in Texas. Their bites can be painful, and cause severe -- and sometimes life-threatening -- allergic reactions.

They also pose a danger to animals and crops.

But it isn't all bad news, according to a recent study from researchers at the University of Virginia Health System.

Meat allergies have become increasingly common in parts of the U.S. -- including the Southeast, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest. They're associated with bites from lone star ticks, which can cause people to develop allergic reactions to a sugar, alpha-gal, found in meat, and other mammalian products. Symptoms include itchy rashes, nausea, difficulty breathing, and in extreme cases, anaphylaxis.

Strangely, meat allergies are rare in the Gulf and in Texas. The authors of the study believe the ants are either preying on or competing with lone star ticks, and keeping human interactions at bay.

For their study, researchers collected meat allergy reports from 44 states. That was when they unexpectedly identified a lower prevalence of cases in regions where fire ants are present.

"We did not set out to study fire ants, but when the number of alpha-gal cases in the Gulf Coast was consistently lower than we expected, the fire ant emerged as an interesting explanation," UVA researcher Behnam Keshavarz, PhD, a co-first author of the paper said in a statement.


But along with their findings, researchers also identified an increasing number of allergic reactions caused by fire ant bites. Experts expect this trend will continue as the insects spread north.

The full paper can be read in the Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology

THumbnail image courtesy: Getty Images.

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