This could ‘tick off’ red meat lovers: Pest’s bite leads to lasting food allergy

lonestartick-300x106To those who don’t consider the summer complete without devouring racks of sizzling barbecued pork ribs or slabs of  charred beef steaks, experts have an odd but true warning: Watch out for the so-called lone star tick.

Amblyomma Americanum, a parasitic species distinguished by a prominent light or white dot on the females’ abdomen, has spread across the southeastern United States and is showing up in increasing numbers in the DMV (the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia), the Washington Post reported.

The bite of the lone star tick is concerning, the newspaper reported, “because  it can produce a severe food allergy in people known as alpha-gal syndrome, which is an allergy to red meat.” [By the way, “alpha gal” is not a reference to a feminist super hero but to a common blood sugar, alpha galactose]. As the news article added:

“When lone star ticks feed on mammals, such as mice, rabbits, or deer, they ingest alpha-gal sugars. Later, if the ticks bite and feed on humans, they inject the alpha-gal sugars with their saliva into their human host. Because people don’t have alpha-gal in their bodies, the human immune system recognizes alpha-gal from a tick bite as a foreign substance and mounts a response, including the development of antibodies. Often, the bite site becomes swollen and itchy.

“But red meat, which contains alpha-gal sugars, can further trigger reactions. If red meat is eaten by people bitten by the lone star tick, the immune system recognizes the alpha-gal from the meat as a foreign substance. As a result, the body mounts a response, often much more severe than the initial response to the tick bite. The alpha-gal allergy to red meat can lead to a rash, hives, itching, swelling, shortness of breath, headaches, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. With severe cases, a person may suffer anaphylaxis, a potentially fatal allergic reaction.”

To be clear, when the experts talk about “red meat” as alpha-gal triggering, they mean: “beef, pork, or lamb; organ meats; and products made from mammals, such as gelatins or dairy products.”.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in its online write-up about alpha-gal syndrome, describes why it can be difficult, initially, to diagnose:

“Symptoms commonly appear 2-6 hours after eating meat or dairy products, or after exposure to products containing alpha-gal (for example, gelatin-coated medications). AGS reactions can be different from person-to-person. They can range from mild to severe or even life-threatening. Anaphylaxis (a potentially life-threatening reaction involving multiple organ systems) may need urgent medical care. People may not have an allergic reaction after every alpha-gal exposure.”

Those unlucky enough to develop the syndrome require sustained caution and care with diet, as the CDC reports:

“AGS should be treated and managed under the care of an allergist or other health care provider. Many foods and products contain alpha-gal; you will need to work with your health care provider to understand which products you need to avoid … Not all patients with AGS have reactions to every ingredient containing alpha-gal. Most health care providers recommend patients with AGS stop eating mammalian meat (such as beef, pork, lamb, venison, rabbit, etc.). Depending on your sensitivity and the severity of your allergic reaction, your health care provider may also suggest you avoid other foods and ingredients which may contain alpha-gal (such as cow’s milk, milk-products, and gelatin). Read food product labels  carefully. Although very rare, some people with severe AGS may react to ingredients in certain vaccines or medications. Talk to your health care provider before taking a new medication or receiving a vaccine.”

An important step for protein-lovers to take, of course, involves prevention. This is getting tougher, the Washington Post reported, due to the tick’s spread:

“The increase in ticks can be attributed to warmer temperatures across the seasons. Michael Raupp, entomology professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, said warmer temperatures in the winter allow more ticks to survive the usually harsh season. Mild weather in the fall, winter and spring also allows them to actively seek hosts for longer periods, which increases their chances of survival. In addition, Raupp said, a boost in animals on which the ticks feed, such as white-tailed deer, also helps increase the tick population. In addition to alpha-gal, the lone star ticks transmit diseases, including Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness (STARI), which produces a rash, fever, fatigue and pain in muscles and joints, and ehrlichiosis, which produces flu-like symptoms, including headache, joint and muscle aches, fever and fatigue. The female lone star tick has a white spot on its back, but the male does not, making it harder to identify. However, the lone star tick has a different shape from the dog tick and is much larger than the deer tick.”

The CDC offers this advice about tick protection:

“Before you go outdoors — avoid grassy, brushy, and wooded areas, where ticks may be found. Treat clothing and gear with permethrin or buy pre-treated items. Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents. After you come indoors — check your clothing for ticks. Shower and perform a thorough tick check. If you see an attached tick, remove it immediately. Take steps to prevent ticks on your pets and in your yard.

The health agency reports this about the pests’ rapacious appetite:

“All three life stages (larva, nymph, adult) of the lone star tick will feed on humans and may be quite aggressive. Lone star ticks will also feed readily on other animals, including dogs and cats, and may be brought into the home on pets.”

Ooof. In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them, their loved ones, and all of us due to the well-established reality of climate change. The evidence-light opponents of this global threat to humanity are part of a broader, counter factual, and anti-science crowd that imperils our collective well-being and needed efforts to deal with grave problems.

We can’t ignore killer weather extremes, as well as increasing pestilence and food insecurity tied to the planet’s warming and rapid increases in C02. We need to prepare for the dire consequences of our over reliance on fossil fuels and to safeguard ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities from the ravages of wildfires, prolonged freezes, invasive and disease-bearing species — and more. We cannot succumb to nihilism, and we must practice reciprocal altruism, including watching out for everyone we know this summer and helping them avoid health crises due to high heat or bug-borne infections.

We have much work to do to grapple with climate change and to stay healthy from the little and large ways it can do us harm.

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