The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have recently published two alarming reports indicating a rise in cases of alpha-gal syndrome (AGS) -- a reaction linked to tick bites that makes people allergic to red meat.
These reports highlight the growing prevalence of AGS and reveal that currently, our healthcare system is not in a position to effectively address this issue.
Surprisingly, even healthcare professionals are often unaware of this condition.
The CDC team also conducted a survey to see how much the common people, nurses, doctors, and healthcare professionals are aware of AGS. The survey involved a total of 1,500 families, and surprisingly 50 percent of them had never heard of AGS.
Moreover, about 30 percent of the medical practitioners weren’t sure if they would be able to provide adequate care to patients with AGS. The experts at CDC highlight that in the last 10 years, this condition may have affected nearly 450,000 Americans, and if not handled well, the situation could get worse.
“Alpha-gal syndrome is an important emerging public health problem, with potentially severe health impacts that can last a lifetime for some patients. It’s critical for clinicians to be aware of AGS so they can properly evaluate, diagnose, and manage their patients and also educate them on tick-bite prevention to protect patients from developing this allergic condition,” said Dr. Ann Carpenter, Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer at CDC.
So what is this syndrome exactly?
What is alpha-gal syndrome?
AGS also referred to as the tick bite meat allergy or red meat allergy; stems from the alpha-gal sugar molecule found in the cells of non-primate mammals such as pigs, lambs, cows, goats, sheep, boars, etc.
When a person is bitten by the tick, among other substances, alpha-gal is released into the wound. The immune system registers the alpha-gal as a foreign molecule and may mount an immune response by releasing histamines to get rid of it. This process triggers allergic reactions ranging from itching to vomiting and may even lead to anaphylactic shock (a fatal allergic reaction during which a person may face difficulty in breathing).
According to researchers, the growing risk of AGS in humans is linked to bites from lone star ticks that carry alpha-gal in their saliva. They are identifiable by the white spots on their back and limbs. Other tick species might also be carrying the sugar, but scientists need more evidence to confirm the same.
Once a lone star tick bites and introduces the sugar into a person’s body as an allergen, their system develops allergies to dairy, red meat, and pharmaceutical products that contain alpha-gal. So the next time they consume food items like venison or beef, they are likely to experience dizziness, swelling, severe stomach ache, or trouble breathing. In other words, getting bitten by this tick can make you allergic to red meat.
AGS is no ordinary allergy
What makes AGS more dangerous is that, unlike most other allergic reactions, its symptoms don’t show up instantly. Typically, the symptoms start troubling a person two to six hours after consuming food or products that contain alpha-gal.
As a result, it may often become difficult to properly diagnose the problem, given that the patient might have already progressed to a state of medical emergency by that point.
Doctors administer epinephrine injections to alleviate symptoms in patients who experience severe allergic reactions, but there is no sure cure for AGS at present. The only way to save yourself is to stay away from red meat and every other item that contains alpha-gal sugar (also written as galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose).
What’s even more worrisome is that the threat of AGS is real and is still highly underreported.
When CDC researchers checked over 350,000 samples collected by a commercial testing lab between 2017 to 2022. They found that 30.5 percent (~90,000) of samples belonged to individuals who possibly have AGS.
“The burden of alpha-gal syndrome in the United States could be substantial given the large percentage of cases suspected to be going undiagnosed due to non-specific and inconsistent symptoms, challenges seeking healthcare, and lack of clinician awareness,” said Dr. Johanna Salzer, senior author of the AGS studies.
“It’s important that people who think they may suffer from AGS see their healthcare provider or an allergist, provide a detailed history of symptoms, get a physical examination, and a blood test that looks for specific antibodies (proteins made by your immune system) to alpha-gal,” she added.