Alpha-Gal Syndrome: Virginia faces growing threat from tick-borne meat allergy

A public health concern with potentially deadly consequences is on the rise in Virginia, health officials said, as people are testing positive for alpha-gal syndrome.

Alpha-gal syndrome (AGS) is a little-known meat allergy that is contracted through tick bites and can be life-threatening. It primarily causes hives, angioedema, upset stomach, diarrhea, stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, headaches and a drop in blood pressure, and it can even cause death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which issued a warning about the syndrome last month.

It is known to spread through tick bites, specifically from the lone star tick, which is prevalent in Virginia, according to Julia Murphy, a state public health veterinarian with the Virginia Department of Health (VDH).


FILE - A tick runs over a hand.  (Bernd Weissbrod/picture alliance via Getty Images)

"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.

Unlike other diseases spread through tick bites – which require the tick to remain attached to a human for hours – AGS is transmitted through the tick’s saliva.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, a tick carries a sugar molecule called alpha-gal in its saliva and injects it into an individual’s body by biting it.

"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 VDH said.

Those who contract the allergy – perhaps during a summer or fall vacation as ticks become more active in warmer weather – have to avoid eating anything with the alpha-gal sugar molecule in it as it triggers allergies to certain types of meats high in fat (primarily pork, beef, rabbit, lamb or venison) or products made from mammals (including protein powders, dairy products and gelatin).


Alpha-gal syndrome: Tick-borne disease that triggers meat allergies is on the rise, CDC says

The tick-borne disease has not caused any deaths, health officials say, but people with alpha-gal syndrome have described it as bewildering and terrifying.

Certain medications, including the cancer drug cetuximab, can also cause an allergic reaction.

Symptoms can show approximately four to eight hours after consuming 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 said.

Due to its connection with tick bites and red meat, AGS is also known as the "red-meat allergy" or the "tick bite meat allergy."

The CDC said in July that AGS is an emerging public health concern as, like other food allergies, an alpha-gal allergy can be life-threatening.

According to Murphy, the best way to avoid getting the syndrome is to avoid getting bitten by a tick in the first place. She recommends wearing light colors when outdoors in order to easily spot ticks, use the correct sprays and check yourself when you get back inside.

The CDC has only been aware of alpha-gal syndrome since 2008. Currently, there is no treatment or cure.

Henrico County health officials urge people to remain extra vigilant in warmer months and to avoid wooded and bushy areas with tall grass. People should also use repellents that contain 20% to 30% DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) on exposed skin and clothing for protection or other products that contain permethrin on clothing, they said.

Fox News' Melissa Rudy contributed to this report.

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