Virginia health officials warn the public about alpha-gal syndrome, a potentially life-threatening allergic condition caused by lone star ticks
Health officials in Virginia have warned the public about the spread of alpha-gal syndrome (AGS), a potentially life-threatening allergic condition caused by lone star ticks – a common species in the state.
The warning comes weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report declaring that AGS is now an “emerging public health concern.” The CDC stated that the condition can be fatal and occurs after people eat red meat or products with alpha-gal, a type of sugar found in most mammals.
According to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), lone star tick carries alpha-gal sugar in its saliva and transmits it into a person’s body upon biting. This saliva produces an immune response similar to an allergic reaction, making it difficult for the immune system to differentiate between the alpha-gal sugar from the tick and that from red meat.
Jonathan Oliver, a public health expert from the University of Minnesota, shed light on the complex nature of AGS in 2022. He noted: “A chemical in the tick’s saliva is thought to trigger AGS, but it remains unclear why only certain individuals are affected and how or why the allergy develops.” (Related: Alpha-gal Syndrome: Tick bites make millions of Americans allergic to red meat.)
The mysterious interplay of proteins and the potential influence of co-infections with other tick-borne diseases further complicate the understanding of AGS.
Julia Murphy, a state public health veterinarian in VDH, warned that there is much to learn about this allergic condition. “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,” she said.
AGS symptoms could take as much as 12 hours to appear
The lone star tick, recognizable by the single white spot on its back, can be found across the wooden areas of the Southeastern and Eastern United States, as well as in Mexico and parts of Canada.
“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,” Murphy said.
Symptoms of AGS do not develop instantly and could take as much as 12 hours to appear. Alpha-gal reactions can manifest as anaphylaxis, characterized by airway constriction and a drop in blood pressure, and may occur several hours after eating red meat.
These symptoms can be mild to fatal, with people describing everything from anaphylaxis to rash, hives, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath, stomach pain and heartburn. The subtlety of these symptoms often leads individuals to fail to connect their reactions to red meat consumption from the day before. Consequently, many suffer from undiagnosed or misdiagnosed cases of the disease.
People who have been recently bitten by a tick and subsequently experience allergic reactions after consuming red meat are advised to contact their healthcare provider promptly.
To prevent AGS, health officials recommend taking precautions similar to those used to prevent Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, including wearing light-colored clothing to spot ticks more easily, using tick-repellent sprays and checking for ticks when returning indoors.
Dr. Johanna Salzer, a CDC epidemiologist who has conducted research on AGS, advised individuals who suspect they have the condition to seek medical attention promptly. This should involve providing a detailed symptom history, a physical examination and a blood test to detect specific antibodies related to alpha-gal.
Visit Allergies.news for more information about allergies caused by ticks and other insects.
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