East coast states of Virginia, North Carolina, and New York are among the worst hit
Americans can be a stubborn lot. If there's one thing many of them won't give up, it's red meat, as epitomized by the Beef Checkoff Program's popular ad phrase, "Beef it's what's for dinner."
I. Deadly Mammal Meat Allergy Fascinates Allergists
© Chris Passet
For alpha-gal allergy victims, mammal meat can prove deadly.
But some meat lovers are being forced to begrudgingly give up their favorite food item to preserve their health.
The culprit is a new allergy to galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, or alpha-gal, a sugar found in the flesh of virtually all non-primate mammals. The allergy is pretty unique. Allergist Dr. Erin McGintee describes, "Intellectually, it's such a cool allergy on so many levels. It's a sugar, not a protein, and most food allergies occur in response to a protein antigen."
And to add to the oddity, the allergy is the first known case of delayed anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction to food that can cause death. Symptoms include the appearance of an itchy rash, throat swelling, and low blood pressure. Typically these symptoms occur minutes after eating the allergy-containing food. But in the case of the alpha-gal allergy, people can eat a steak dinner and then be stricken with anaphylaxis hours later, requiring hospitalization and life-saving epinephrine injections.
Helen Olive, a North Carolina resident interviewed by CNN has suffered from the allergy for 11 years now. At first it caused mere discomfort. She recalls, "It was terrible. The sensation was all over my body and then I developed hives."
But with time the attacks became more severe. Eventually she was hospitalized leading to her diagnosis. She recalls, "I had a black and blue salad with beef tips. Later I had the same reaction except the Benadryl would not work."
There are over 1,500 known cases of alpha-gal allergies in the U.S. They are virtually all found among residents of the East Coast, with the largest population of victims living in Virginia. North Carolina and New York are also seeing rising numbers of cases.
II. Ticks are Believed to be to Blame
© Mike Quinn
The allergy is believed to be caused by the Lone Star Tick, a pest that feasts on human blood.
The cause has seemingly been traced to the common lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum) as all the victims have had at least one recent tick bite. Many have developed the allergy after many bites. Precise details of how the tick bite leads to the allergy are not yet known, but are a hot topic of research.
Among the highest profile victims is famous author John Grisham who owns a plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia. He had to give up red meat after he received a tick bite on the plantation and began to experience painful reactions to mammal meat.
A handful of victims have recovered, seeing their alpha-gal tolerance return over time. Researchers have devised a "meat test" to verify if the recovered victims are able to safely eat mammal meat once more.
Dr. Scott Commins, who discovered the allergy in 2009 along with his colleague Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, warns that there's no treatment for victims other than to give up red meat. He comments, "There is no current medication to treat food allergies."
Researchers suggest that East Coast residents use DEET-based tick repellant when working outdoors and/or avoid areas that might have ticks. But for people who live next to woods, exposure may be inevitable and thus the number of people with mammal meat allergies is expected to rise.