A growing number of US citizens are developing a rare red meat allergy brought on by tick bites, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned.
Alpha-gal syndrome (AGS) is a potentially life-threatening allergy that’s linked to the saliva of the lone star tick. The tick is identifiable by a white spot on the back, and is described as “very aggressive.” The allergy is caused by a sugar molecule called alpha-gal, which is not naturally found in humans. The ticks are mostly found in southern and eastern parts of the USA, but global warming is causing them to move further afield.
CDC epidemiologist Ann Carpenter said AGS is an “important emerging public health problem, with potentially severe health impacts that can last a lifetime for some patients.”
AGS was first discovered accidentally in 2008 by US researchers who were testing a drug used to treat cancer. It’s thought that between 96,000 and 450,000 Americans may have been affected by the condition since 2010. Foods that can be dangerous to sufferers include beef, pork, gelatin, rabbit, lamb, venison, some dairy products, and some drugs.
Very little is understood about the condition, and a survey of 1,500 doctors last year found that 42 percent had never heard of it.
What are the symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome?
Symptoms vary, but can include diarrhea, stomach cramps, shortness of breath, and hives. Fatal anaphylaxis is also a possibility.
“AGS reactions can be different from person-to-person,” the CDC writes on its website. “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.”
Symptoms can be difficult to spot due to the fact that meat is slow to digest. They therefore may not appear immediately after consumption, and usually occur between two and six hours following.
Not all people with AGS will have reactions to every food containing alpha-gal, but most healthcare professionals recommend sufferers to avoid meat steaming from mammals.
“It’s important that people who think they may suffer from AGS see their healthcare provider or an allergist, provide a detailed history of symptoms, get a physical examination, and a blood test that looks for specific antibodies (proteins made by your immune system) to alpha-gal,” said Johanna Salzer, one of the CDC report authors.