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Jan 3, 2012 8:49 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

East End Ticks Linked to Meat Allergy in Humans, Local Doctor Says

Jan 4, 2012 8:28 AM

For the past four years, former East Hampton resident Beth Baldwin endured such severe itching and swelling that she felt like fiction’s most memorable hunchback.

“I had swelling in my ears and would break out in crazy hives all over my face,” said the 33-year-old attorney, who has a practice in Sag Harbor. “I always joked that I looked like Quasimodo.”

Only this past summer was a local doctor finally able to pinpoint the cause of Ms. Baldwin’s undiagnosed allergic reaction: a relatively rare and unusual allergy to a carbohydrate found in basically all mammalian meat except for that of apes or humans. Beef, pork, ham, venison and lamb, for example, can trigger the reactions in those with the allergy, though poultry and fish are still fine to eat.

The allergy is associated with the bites of ticks and chiggers, and, because of the prevalence of these disease-carrying insects on the East End, the allergy is relatively more common here than in other, less tick-prone areas of the country, according to Dr. Erin McGintee of ENT and Allergy Associates. Ms. McGintee, who diagnosed Ms. Baldwin, is an allergist who practices in East Hampton, Southampton and Riverhead towns.

“It’s something [that] I think is mind-blowing,” said Dr. McGintee, who noted that she has diagnosed 17 patients, including Ms. Baldwin, so far in East Hampton and Southampton towns with the allergy, which is nicknamed the “alpha-gal allergy,” because the carb in question is named galactose alpha 1,3-galactose. “Partly because it’s a newly characterized allergy, people don’t look for it,” she added.

Most allergies, Dr. McGintee explained, are considered idiopathic, meaning their causes are lumped into the “unknown cause” category. Now, many previously unaccounted for allergies are turning out to be alpha-gal. And the allergy, which was first officially reported in 2009 by a group of physician researchers at the University of Virginia, is remarkable on at least three counts, Dr. McGintee explained.

First, it is an allergy to a carbohydrate, while most food allergies are to proteins. Second, alpha-gal causes a delayed allergic reaction. The symptoms, which range from extreme itching and hives all over the body to full-blown anaphylactic shock, which can include abdominal cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing and even loss of consciousness, come three to six hours after meat is consumed. This is in marked contrast to the common peanut allergy, for example, in which the allergic reaction tends to occur within 30 minutes of ingestion.

The third oddity about alpha-gal is that it develops over time. Therefore, people who have been eating meat their whole lives can suddenly become allergic to it, possibly as the result of a bite from a tick or chigger. Dr. McGintee said it appears that the lone star tick (

Amblyomma americanum

) and chiggers are the main trigger for this allergy.

This trio of characteristics is believed to be why the allergy has been identified relatively recently. The long gap between eating the meat and experiencing the allergic reaction means many people do not associate meat with the reaction, Dr. McGintee explained.

She said it is not yet fully clear why some individuals may be more susceptible than others, and though the tick/alpha-gal allergy link has been made, it is not yet fully understood. At one point, different blood types were believed to be more susceptible, but preliminary data has not confirmed that theory.

Of Dr. McGintee’s 17 alpha-gal patients, all had been bitten by ticks. She said a genetic factor is also a possibility but has not yet been documented. In her small sample size of 17, for instance, there are three sets of family members who all have the allergy, she said.

The quantity of meat eaten, as well as fat content, are believed to be related to the severity of the reaction, but once again the research is not yet concrete. “The safest alternative is to strictly avoid the meat, since reactions can be life-threatening,” she said.

Most medical literature on the allergy focuses on other tick-prone areas, such as the Southeastern states, she said. But her experience has led her to consider the East End a new frontier of sorts for the alpha-gal allergy.

“It’s sort of exciting for me, because, in the medical literature, cases on eastern Long Island have not really been reported,” she said.

After reading up on alpha-gal, she said she started connecting the dots with her own patients. Ms. Baldwin, who moved from East Hampton to St. James in June, was rushed to Southampton Hospital several times over the past few years due to her symptoms, which no one had been able to explain to her. Finally, in August, she received a call out of the blue from Dr. McGintee. Subsequent testing pointed to alpha-gal.

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I figured it out over a decade ago after developing the meat allergy (and a couple others) following Lyme disease, but had associated it with the antibiotics, not the tick. I suggest that all people with the allergy carry an inhaler with them.
By jrhheld (5), New York on Jan 5, 12 3:55 PM
Maybe this could be related to why I can't eat pork anymore, without ending up queasy, and ill.

Man, I really miss making killer ribs on the BBQ...
By Mr. Z (10649), North Sea on Jan 8, 12 10:27 PM