A bite from the lone star tick might make even the most voracious carnivores think twice before biting into a burger.
An inadvertent soldier in nature’s fight back against human consumption, the tiny tick—named for the single white spot on its back—has been turning barbecue-lovers into reluctant vegetarians along the East Coast, setting off allergic reactions to meat amongst those it bites.
“People will eat beef and then anywhere from three to six hours later start having a reaction; anything from hives to full-blown anaphylactic shock,” said Dr. Scott Commins, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “And most people want to avoid having the reaction, so they try to stay away from the food that triggers it.”
Scientists blame the tick’s saliva, which, seeps into the body through the bite wound and potentially interferes with normal biological functions. In laboratory tests, lone star tick bites led to elevated blood levels of alpha-gal, a complex sugar found in beef, pork, and lamb.
“It’s hard to prove,” said Dr. Commins, commenting on the relationship between the tick and its effect. “We’re still searching for the mechanism.”
While causation hasn’t yet been confirmed, a steady stream of support for correlation exists. Commins’ group has seen upwards of 400 meat allergy cases this year, and 90% of those affected reported having been nipped by the lone star tick.
But even though scientists are close to solving the health riddle, and even though the allergy’s becoming more and more common in the South and the East—perhaps, suppose officials, because a relatively warm weather year has brought out the ticks—experts still consider the allergy a bit, well, weird.
“It’s very atypical as food allergies go,” said Dr. Stanley Fineman, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. “Most food allergies occur very quickly. And it’s also a bit unusual to see adults develop a food allergy.”
Indeed, developing an allergy in adulthood is unusual. It’s also tough to adjust to, especially when it spoils a major food group and a major habit for most people. According to Commins, some patients are taking their fortune in stride, while others are taking their misfortune to the heart.
Either way, Mother Nature will be happy to know that a few diehard meat-eaters have officially gone green.
Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Amblyomma_americanum_tick_2.jpg