Health experts are warning about an increase in cases of a rare red-meat allergy caused by a tick bite and are urging people to take caution when outside during the warmer months as tick-borne illnesses are on the rise.
An estimated 5,000 people have been diagnosed with Alpha-Gal allergy, caused by a bite from the lone star tick, which is widely distributed across the eastern-U.S. but most concentrated in the south.
The case data has been collected by Dr. Scott Commins, an allergist at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, NBC Today reported. Dr. Commins has recorded an increase of 1,500 cases over the past two years alone.
In a study published in the journal Allergy last year, researchers from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recorded an unusual pattern in six patients who suffered recurrent bouts of anaphylaxis — a life-threatening allergic reaction which causes constriction of the airways and a dangerous drop in blood pressure, they said.
They found that these people all had antibodies circulating in their body that went into hyper-drive with the consumption of red meat. Called “Alpha-Gal allergy”, the immune system goes on the defensive to a particular sugar molecule found in beef, pork, lamb, and similar animal products.
The anaphylaxis attacks usually occurred between three and six hours after a meal, the researchers determined, making it more difficult for patients and doctors to make the connection to red meat as the trigger.
Additionally, in interviews with the patients, the doctors found they all had a history of bites from Lone Star ticks — so named for the small white dot on the back of an adult female.
“We often think of ticks as carriers of infectious diseases, such as Lyme disease, but the research strongly suggests that bites from this particular species of tick can lead to this unusual allergy,” co-author of the study, Dr. Melody Carter, said in a statement at the time.
“The association is increasingly clear, but we still need to discover exactly how these two events are linked and why some people with similar exposure to tick bites seem to be more prone to developing the alpha-gal allergy than others.”
Alpha-Gal allergy is not a federally notifiable condition, which means cases occurring throughout the U.S. are not automatically reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Also, the CDC’s website only makes a small mention to the alpha-gal allergy as coming from Lone Star tick bites. More concerning is their ability to transmit a number of bacteria that can cause a wide range of illnesses with symptoms ranging from flu-like — fever, headache, muscle aches, fatigue — and diarrhea and in rare cases, death.
Alpha-Gal allergy transmitted by tick bites was first discovered in 2002 by Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, from the University of Virginia. He found a number of his patients were having an adverse reaction to the chemotherapy drug cetuximab, which contains alpha-gal molecules. All the patients had a history of Lone Star tick bites.
Diseases from mosquito, tick and flea bites have tripled in the U.S. from 2004 to 2016, according to the CDC and federal health officials have earlier warned that state and local pest control bodies don’t have enough resources to contain the threat posed by disease-carrying insects.
To protect oneself, the CDC recommends taking a number of precautions, which includes using bug spray and wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants in areas likely to be infested with ticks, mosquitoes and fleas. Even more, the agency recommends buying pre-treated clothing or tents (or treating them yourself) with permethrin.