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People 'stunned' to learn a tick bite can lead to meat allergy

By Cathy Dyson • Dec 25, 2017 at 10:00 AM

When Angelita Crawford started having severe stomach issues two springs ago after being bitten by a tick, she was tested for Lyme disease, certain it was the root of her problems.

It wasn’t, and the Bealeton woman suffered for another half a year.

Then, in fall 2015, she had the worst bout yet: hives, itching and trouble breathing hours after eating a ham and roast beef sandwich. A doctor tested her for food allergies.

The Fauquier County resident discovered a tick indeed was responsible for her problems, but it wasn’t the type that caused Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that results in flu-like symptoms, joint pain and fatigue.

The tick that bit Crawford brought on a violent reaction to red meat.

She developed alpha-gal allergy, a condition that wasn’t even recognized—or named—until eight years ago. It’s caused by a lone star tick, an insect that isn’t limited to Texas, but is found in half of the United States, from east of the Rockies to the Atlantic Ocean and up and down the Eastern seaboard.

“I was completely stunned,” she said. “I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know it existed.”

‘A PASSION FOR THAT’

Researchers at the University of Virginia in 2009 first put a name to this condition, also known as MMA, or Mammalian Meat Allergy. Since then, thousands of people have had to give up burgers and barbecue, hot dogs and ham.

Crawford, an avid hunter of deer and ducks, also had to take venison off her plate, although she still hunts because she has “a passion for that.” Plus, her family and the Labrador retrievers she raises love the meat.

She’s learned to adjust her diet and to read labels diligently. Because her reaction to anything produced by mammals is so extreme, she can’t have dairy either. She’s learned, by trial and error, that animal products are present in unusual places, from the gelatin in marshmallows, Jell-O and pill capsules to the beef fat in animal shortening used to make Twinkies.

“It’s almost like we have to become partially vegan in a sense,” Crawford said, although people with alpha-gal can consume chicken, fish and seafood.

‘KIND OF TERRIFYING’

Here’s how this unusual allergy develops. A lone star tick—probably named for the white blob on its back—bites a deer or other animal, then sinks its teeth into a human. The tick transfers the alpha-gal, a sugar molecule that’s in all mammals except humans and apes, into the person’s body.

“Because it’s foreign to us, we think it’s something dangerous and we start developing antibodies to it,” said Dr. Andrew Kim of the Allergy & Asthma Center of Fredericksburg. “Next time we ingest red meat, which has the alpha-gal, we start attacking it like we think it’s an invader.”

As if a tick bite leading to a food allergy isn’t bizarre enough, there are other oddities about this ailment. Allergies to peanuts, milk, eggs or shellfish are based on protein molecules. The alpha-gal is sugar-based.

When a person with an allergy to peanuts accidentally consumes some, he or she typically reacts immediately with tingling, swelling or trouble breathing. When someone with the alpha-gal allergy eats beef, pork, lamb or goat, he or she won’t develop symptoms until three to six hours later.

That means people might have steak or pork chops for dinner, go to bed and wake up sweating, itching and gasping for air. They’re having anaphylaxis, a severe, potentially life-threatening reaction that has to be treated with epinephrine, also called an EpiPen.

“They wake up in the midst of a medical emergency, they feel like they’re dying, their blood pressure is dropping,” said Dr. Jonathan Mozena with Allergy Partners of Fredericksburg. “It’s kind of terrifying.”

CROSS-CONTAMINATION

Cameron Allen was 9 when she found out she had the unusual allergy. When she had to give up dairy, it was tough for her to suddenly not be able to enjoy ice cream at a friend’s birthday party, said her mother, Shannon Ellis.

The allergy impacted everyone in the household, which includes three children and their parents. Beef and venison were staples in their diet, and the Essex County residents spend lots of time outdoors. It was strange to realize that one aspect of their lives made them susceptible to tick bites, which could eliminate another part of their routine.

Like Crawford, Ellis started to research the condition and how easily her daughter, now 12, could be exposed to products made from mammals without eating the first piece of meat. Cross-contamination became a huge issue.

For instance, blood tests determined that Cameron’s alpha-gal levels dropped to the point she could eat dairy again, so she typically eats cheese pizza. If the person preparing pepperoni pizza touches hers, Cameron can have a reaction.

“Not to sound over-dramatic, but when you go out to eat, you’re just putting your child’s life in someone else’s hands,” Ellis said. “It really puts into perspective how scary food allergies and cross-contamination are.”

SOME ARE ‘TRAUMATIZED’

As tough as the allergy can be for a child, doctors interviewed said it can be devastating for the meat-and-potato crowd.

“Some men are traumatized,” Kim said. “They are hunters and eat venison, and it’s just something that’s terrible for them.”

For others, the diagnosis is the answer to a problem that’s plagued them long before U.Va. doctors put a name to it. One man named John posted on the Alpha-Gal Allergy Awareness support page—alpha-gal.org—that he’d had this more than 30 years and never knew what it was. Doctors just looked at him strangely when he said he was allergic to meat.

Some people eventually are able to bring red meat back into their diets, provided they aren’t bitten again by a lone star tick. But because the condition is so new, there’s much that isn’t known, such as if other ticks or insects can pass on the disease.

Learning about the allergy “definitely humbled us in terms of our understanding of how things work,” Mozena said, adding that before alpha-gal, doctors didn’t think it was possible for food allergies to manifest themselves hours later.

He’s not surprised there are thousands of cases in the United States—and beyond.

“The more you’re aware of something, the more you look for it, the more you find it,” Mozena said.

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©2017 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)

Visit The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.) at www.fredericksburg.com/flshome

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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