Tick Bite Can Cause Red Meat Allergy

Mike Bolton | November 4, 2014

On an April evening three years ago, Jason Power, of Winder, discovered a tick attached to his leg. A hunter and fisherman, Jason had pulled ticks off of himself before. He didn’t give it a second thought.

“I pulled it off my leg, but this time the bite place just wouldn’t go away. It left a place that was really red, and the spot where it had bitten me got really hard.”

Jason said he didn’t notice the tick had a beige oval on its back identifying it as a Lone Star tick. On Memorial Day several weeks later, Jason was working a part-time job and had just finished eating a hamburger when something “hit me like a ton of bricks.”

“I broke out in hives, and then I started having trouble breathing,” he said. “I knew I was having an allergic reaction to something, and I was going into anaphylactic shock. They called an ambulance and rushed me to the hospital. At the hospital they gave me some shots, and I came around, but they kept me overnight. They told me to make an appointment with a doctor immediately.”

Jason got a break several days later when he got an appointment with Dr. Dean Firschein, of Allergy Partners of Georgia, in Athens. The doctor had a good idea what was wrong with Jason as soon as he heard the story.

“He ran a few allergy tests and then he came in to talk to me,” Jason remembers. “He asked me if I had been bitten by a tick lately. I said, ‘Well, actually I have.’ He asked if the place where it had bitten me had got real red and hard.

“It was weird. It was like he was there reading my mind.”

Blood tests confirmed Jason had developed an allergy called Alpha Gal from the tick bite. Unlike Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which are diseases, Alpha Gal is a virus.

University of Virginia doctor Thomas Platts-Mills, who himself has the Alpha Gal allergy, is the doctor who discovered the virus along with a colleague. The two doctors believe an organism in the tick’s saliva may make a Lone Star tick bite victim allergic.

When Jason learned what that meant, he was devastated. He was told those who acquire the virus become allergic to red meat and dairy products including butter and cheese.

“Man, I’m a guy who loves my barbecue and hamburgers,” Jason said. “Going three years without a hamburger has about killed me.”

The most famous victim of Alpha Gal is best-selling novelist John Grisham. He has written about his 12-year ordeal of trying to find out he suddenly became allergic to red meat. Eventually, doctors diagnosed his allergy to be Alpha Gal.

The allergy is so severe that Alpha Gal victims can have severe reactions just by touching red meat such as cleaning a deer or putting a burger on the grill for family members.

The bad news is that Alpha Gal is becoming more common in Georgia.

“I’ve diagnosed, probably, 50 people with the virus in the past four years,” Dr. Firschein said. “Actually, we believe now Alpha Gal has been around a while, but it’s only in recent years that we understand what it is and what causes it. I had a patient 20 years ago that I’m convinced had it, but we didn’t know at the time what it was.”

Dr. Firschein says anyone who ventures outside is a threat to be bitten by the Lone Star tick, the only tick that can spread the virus to humans. He said several DNR employees who spend large amount of time outdoors have contracted the virus.

An Alpha Gal attack may occur days or weeks after ingesting or coming into contact with red meat, Dr. Firschein said. There is no cure for the Alpha Gal allergy, but the doctor says there is evidence some victims can outgrow the allergy after time.

“The only other reaction I’ve had came when I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I took a bite of barbecue,” Jason says. “At first, though, I couldn’t even eat dairy products and butter, but I can have that now. I had blood work done, and my levels had dropped from 3.0 three years ago to 0.9 now. I’m still considered to have the allergy, but maybe there’s a light at the end of tunnel.”

Wear tick repellent, and always check for ticks!

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