The Commonwealth of Virginia faces a burgeoning public health crisis, according to health experts, as increasing numbers of individuals are diagnosed with the potentially fatal alpha-gal syndrome (AGS). This obscure meat allergy is contracted through tick bites and poses a significant risk to residents, says the CDC, who issued an alert last month detailing its life-threatening symptoms, including severe hives, digestive distress, and even a dangerous drop in blood pressure.
Virginia's own public health veterinarian, Julia Murphy from the Virginia Department of Health, points the finger squarely at the lone star tick, a species running rampant in the state, as the primary transmitter of the allergy. With its life-altering and potentially lethal effects, it's crucial for Virginians to be aware and take preventative measures immediately, Fox News reports.
"We do have a lot of lone star ticks here in Virginia, so we think that's driving a lot of what we are seeing in Virginia when it comes to alpha-gal and people testing positive for alpha-gal," she said, according to WSET.
In contrast to other tick-borne diseases that necessitate the tick staying attached to a person for several hours, AGS is transmitted directly through the tick's saliva.
The Virginia Department of Health states that a tick has a sugar molecule known as alpha-gal in its saliva, which is introduced into a person's body through a bite.
"The tick’s saliva prompts an immune response from the human body to develop antibodies in an attempt to combat the foreign substance. However, now the immune system has a difficult time determining whether or not the alpha-gal carbohydrate floating around in your blood is from the tick or from the burger you just ate, potentially resulting in an allergic reaction," the health department said.
Individuals who develop the allergy, possibly during the more tick-active seasons of summer or fall, must steer clear of consuming any items containing the alpha-gal sugar molecule. This molecule can activate allergic reactions to specific high-fat meats like pork, beef, rabbit, lamb, or venison, as well as products derived from mammals, such as protein powders, dairy, and gelatin.
Some medications, like the cancer treatment cetuximab, can also trigger allergic responses. Signs may manifest roughly four to eight hours following the consumption of red meat.
"Once you have alpha-gal, your future is somewhat uncertain in regard to the kind of restrictions you might have and what you can eat and what other things you can take in orally, such as medications and such," Murphy stated.
AGS' connection with tick bites has given it the name of "red meat allergy" or "the tick bite meat allergy."
According to Murphy, the best way to avoid getting the disease is to avoid being bitten, and recommends wearing light colors when outdoors to spot ticks on your person.
The CDC has only been aware of AGS since 2018, and there is yet no cure or treatment developed for the syndrome.