JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) - Doctors in Mississippi's metro are seeing a surge of new patients with an interesting new ailment; anaphylactic shock after eating the meat of mammals.
Doctor Gailen Marshall, the Chief of Allergy, Asthma and Clinical Immunology at UMMC, in Jackson, says these people are being diagnosed with a tick-born illness, which is causing allergic reaction to red meat.
"What happens in someone that develops Alpha-Gal allergy, is that they're bitten by this tick,” Marshall said. “The Alpha-Gal antigen is somehow introduced into their bodies.”
“The thought process is that the tick has fed on another mammal that has Alpha-Gal in their blood and by the nature of what ticks do when they bite, they inject a certain amount of their own saliva back into that wound."
The medical community is still working to understand exactly what's happening, but what they do know is mammals are now carrying this form of a carbohydrate which is being injected into humans.
"An Alpha-Gal is a simple word for a very long title for a type of sugar that's in all kinds of mammals, but not in human beings," he added.
While symptoms have been observed in people from various places, over the last decade, doctors finally acknowledge it's existence.
"It's sort of an unusual phenomenon. It took the medical community several years to even accept that it's real."
So, what happens to a human body that receives this foreign pathogen?
"When we're exposed to something, whatever it is, that we don't make ourselves, our body may make an immune response against it. In the case of Alpha-Gal, what we're seeing is that seems to be mediated through tick bites. In particular, they thought it was the Lonestar tick only.
So what's the worse news? These Lonestar ticks have cousins.
"Entomologists are giving us information that the makeup of the Lonestar tick, is they have cousins. These cousins are apparently able to transmit the same problem as the Lonestar tick itself, on the basis that we're seeing Alpha-Gal allergy in places where they have trouble finding Lonestar ticks."
The doctor says while the phenomenon is being observed throughout the world, southerners here in America are at particular risk.
"Even though the incidents of this is spreading, it's most common in places like Mississippi, that are very rural and wooded where people are going to be very exposed to ticks a lot."
If you've had a tick bite and you're worried, an allergist can test your blood for Alpha-Gal. Also, listen to what your body is telling you.
"So, in the example I gave, someone ate a hamburger and they were allergic to the beef... They would begin to experience symptoms within five-to-60 minutes of exposure to that hamburger. Literally, by the time they got up from the table, they'd know something is wrong."
Dr. Marshall says after you've been bitten, the first signs can take three-to-four weeks to appear.
Anaphylactic symptoms vary in degree in infected people- from moderate, to potentially deadly.
"In Alpha-Gal allergy, again, for reasons we don't fully understand, it's three-to-twelve hours after exposure [to red meat], before the reaction occurs."
"...abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, could be gut symptoms but then could transfer to the rest of the body where you can have itching and hives and lung symptoms, like difficulty breathing; even symptoms in your throat, where you have difficulty swallowing.”
There is some good news amidst all this bad.
The doctor said if “that individual can keep themselves from being bitten by ticks repeatedly, there's mounting information that says that they can lose that allergy over time."
Doctor Marshall says he has seen patients in some case sort of "out-grow" their allergy, after a course of a few years, having not allowed themselves to be bitten again.
He also laughingly says don't blame ticks- they're just doing what they know to do.
"It's an interesting little vermin,” he said. “They're just doing what they do for their own life form-trying to get a blood meal, to move on and reproduce, just trying to get from the morning to the evening, just like everybody else… Ticks get no respect."