Spring means ticks in most of North America, and turkey hunters—along with anyone else who spends time in the woods—will have to keep an eye out for the pesky little bloodsuckers this season. Ticks carry all sorts of diseases, including alpha gal and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. But the most common tick-borne illness on the continent today is Lyme disease.
Help could be on the way, though. A new study conducted at the University of Massachusetts Amherst provides an intriguing insight into the fight against Lyme disease. The study, published in the journal Vector-born and Zoonotic Diseases, found that whitetail deer blood actually kills the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
Researchers have known for some time that whitetails are immune to Lyme disease, according to Dr. Stephen Rich, a professor of microbiology at UMass and the executive director of the New England Center of Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases. (The center was established last year with $10 million in grant funding from the CDC.)
“But until publication of our paper,” Rich says, “no one had done the experiment to show that deer blood—specifically the serum component of white-tailed deer blood—kills Lyme disease.”
Rich tells Outdoor Life that he’s always found it curious how whitetails are not susceptible to Lyme disease, even though deer are the primary hosts for the ticks that carry the disease. He never really had an answer for why, and was excited when doctoral student Patrick Pearson approached him about doing an experiment focusing on this connection.
“I thought, Oh that’s perfect, because I’ve wanted to answer this question for people for quite some time,” Rich says. “The study was really wrought out of public interest and understanding exactly what role deer play in all this.”
Researchers at UMass obtained whitetail blood serum from a semi-captive deer herd in Alabama that had not been exposed to ticks or the bacterium that causes Lyme disease (a pathogen known as Borrelia burgdorferi). After growing the bacteria in a test tube, they introduced the deer blood serum and saw that it killed the bacteria. This realization could eventually lead to new strategies for how we prevent and treat Lyme disease in humans, Rich says. But we still have a lot to learn.
“This discovery tells us that deer blood is relevant to the killing of the Lyme agent,” Rich explains. “Now we’ll dig in and figure out exactly what is going on in the deer blood that’s causing this effect.”
He adds that someday, humans could theoretically find a way to harness this effect in drug form. He cautions, however, that even experimental pharmaceuticals would be a long ways out and would require significantly more research.
“We don’t want people to walk away and think we’re proposing that they inject themselves with deer blood.”
Lyme Disease Is a Real Risk to Hunters in the Midwest and Northeast
The potentially debilitating illness is of particular concern to those living in the Eastern and Midwestern United States. These regions are home to the two primary epicenters of the disease, which has been around since the 1970s. While deaths from Lyme disease are rare, it affects more than 470,000 people annually, according to the CDC.
Prevention is always the best medicine, and there are several steps hunters can take to prevent tick bites in the field. Treating your clothes with permethrin provides a good first line of defense. Deet and other insect repellents can also be effective when reapplied regularly. Wearing long sleeves and pants and tucking your pant legs into your socks are other good ways to avoid tick bites.
Always check yourself for ticks (or have your buddy give you a once-over) after a day in the woods and pull all ticks from your skin as soon as possible. Tick bites infected with Lyme disease will often, but not always, leave an iconic “target” rash on the skin. If you develop this type of rash, see a doctor immediately. The CDC urges that early diagnosis and proper antibiotic treatment are critical in preventing more serious cases of the disease.