By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. — One of many Allergies blogs on SmartLivingNetwork.com
Scientists are always on the lookout for trends, keen on the happenings in the world around them. I fit this mold perfectly, always noting and observing my environment. A few months ago, I picked up on a trend that has sent me down an interesting path.
It began in Africa. I was visiting several areas performing wellness checks on children in orphanages and schools. One bright-eyed child came into my exam area and relayed to the interpreter that he was allergic to meat, and that he was breaking out in hives every time he ate beef or lamb. This was unusual, as meat allergies are relatively uncommon. Even more unusual, however, was the fact that I'd heard the same story four times at the same school - itchy hives after the consumption of beef, lamb, or pork.
This pattern peaked my attention and a few questions popped into my mind. Were these kids making things up? Were they related, sharing the same genes? Was there something about the meat these kids were eating that was causing these reactions? The next day, I heard similar stories at a school down the road.
Perplexed, I was eager to get an internet connection to do some research. Over the years, I'd only seen a couple of cases of meat allergy, so it was unusual to see such a cluster.
A scan of the medical literature brought a surprising revelation. Meat allergies are on the rise in various corners of the world, including the United States, due to a cross-reaction to bites from certain ticks. In the U.S., the Lone Star tick is the culprit, found most commonly in the southeastern states. When the tick bites, it injects saliva under the skin that has the potential to stimulate the immune system. Coincidentally, a component of the tick saliva is chemically similar to a carbohydrate called alpha-gal found in beef, lamb, and pork.
In America, alpha-gal meat allergy is on the rise since it was first described in 2008. Further, the prevalence and geography of the Lone Star tick seems to be expanding.
If you have issues with meat, it is important to distinguish whether the problem is an intolerance vs. an allergy. If an allergy exists, there is really nothing to cure a person of the ailment. Avoidance is key but if exposure occurs, quick administration of antihistamine can alleviate symptoms. If you live in or are traveling around the Southeastern US, watch out for those Lone Star ticks - one bite could ruin your future as a carnivore!
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