, Gloucester, MA

October 25, 2013

Like red meat? Don't pick up this tick

Senior Lookout
Anne Springer

---- — Would you ever think that a tick bite could make you give up eating steak?

That’s exactly what has happened to an unlucky group of people who have come into contact with Amblyomma americanum, also known as the Lone Star tick. Common in the American Southeast, its range extends into southern New England. These aggressive little pests may be traveling into our area even more frequently as unwanted hitchhikers on some dogs that arrive here from overcrowded shelters in the South to be adopted out by local animal shelters here.

Just like many other species of ticks, the Lone Star tick can transmit tularemia, human monocytic ehrlichiosis, and other nasty diseases. But the one getting the most attention lately is something called Alpha-Gal allergy.

The Alpha-Gal allergic reaction is characterized by the appearance of hives, and possibly anaphylaxis — a severe, and sometimes life-threatening, allergic reaction — about four to eight hours after the victim consumes red meat containing a carbohydrate called alpha-galactose. According to Wikipedia, this carbohydrate occurs in the meat of non-primate mammals, in cat dander, and in a drug used in the treatment of head and neck cancer. There is a commercial test available to determine if a person has the allergy, but because the allergic reaction is commonly delayed, diagnosis is often difficult.

People with the Alpha-Gal allergy can eat chicken, turkey and fish, but not “mammalian meat.”

Mammalian meats are beef, pork, and lamb — basically any red meat. Currently, the only treatment for the allergy is to avoid meat, and products that may contain alpha-galactose, such as gelatin and protein powders.

Drs. Susan Wolver and Diane Sun of Virginia Commonwealth University have been involved in research on this, and recently published an article in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Because this particular tick is not widely known in our area, and the reaction can be delayed, diagnosis is not necessarily easy, and consumers should be proactive about letting their health provider know if they experience any adverse reactions following the consumption of meat if there’s any possibility they’ve been exposed to a tick bite from this particular variety.

Fall is an active tick season in Massachusetts, and it’s especially important for hunters to realize that they are most at risk of Lyme, and other tick-borne diseases, now. When a deer is killed, the ticks can jump off and quickly reattach to a human, thus transmitting disease more quickly. Hunters are advised by authorities, such as Dr. Sam Telford of Tufts Univerisity, to hang deer carcasses over a tarp that has been saturated with an insecticide, such as Raid, so that ticks are killed when they drop off the deer.

When returning home from a hunting trip, or from a walk in the woods, changing clothing before re-entering the home helps prevent bringing ticks in with you. Keeping a pair of tweezers by the door, with a container of alcohol into which to drop the ticks, is a great idea, too. That way, you can remove any hitchhikers from your canine companions, too, and maybe avoid having to give up steak.

Anne Springer is the public relations director of SeniorCare Inc., Cape Ann’s local area agency on aging. To reach SeniorCare, call 978-281-1750.