(Click here to listen to the audio – approx. 3.5 min)

The Lone Star tick is supposed to stop dead in its tracks below the Iowa border but increasing numbers of people are being bitten by ticks and developing the red meat allergy (alpha-gal allergy) usually pinned on the Lone Star tick.

What gives?

According to Dr. Alaaddin Kandeel, an allergist at Essentia Health in Duluth, he’s diagnosed 18 patients with alpha-gal allergy – 10 from northeast Minnesota and 8 from northwest Wisconsin – hardly accepted Lone Star territory.  In the audio he states he diagnoses approximately 1 patient per month with Alpha-gal allergy and that the reactions can be severe, from passing out to life-threatening reactions.

And he’s not alone.  Dr. Chris Cleveland, also an allergist but in North Dakota, has also discovered alpha-gal allergy in his Minnesota patients.

Elizabeth Schiffman, epidemiologist at the Minnesota Department of Health says they get:

“sporadic reports of lone star ticks, but we don’t know of any established populations because when we’ve gone out and done our routine tick surveillance, what we really find are wood ticks….and then those black legged ticks, or the deer ticks.”

And while tick borne diseases are reportable by law in Minnesota, allergies like the alpha-gal allergy are not, so there really is no way to know how many are affected.

Is something other than the lone star tick causing the allergy?

Scott Commins, one of the researchers who first identified alpha-gal, states that researchers may be guilty of pigeonholing the allergy on the lone star tick due to the fact that there are now patients with alpha-gal allergy from all over the world where a variety of ticks are found.  His current work is trying to identify what is in the tick bite that is causing the allergy.

He does have a hypothesis.

He feels that perhaps when the tick bites an animal that already carries the alpha-gal carbohydrate, something in the tick’s saliva triggers an allergic reaction when it then bites a human.  He also feels genetic factors play a role.  He states,

We know that in some patients the allergy fades over time. There are others where this appears to be long-lasting,” he added. “The issue is we don’t know what defines the groups or how to predict who will end up in each group at the outset. It may depend on further tick bites.”

Another challenge is that the reaction happens hours after eating so patients don’t make the connection, and according to Commins it causes painful stomach cramps but not the usual itching hives that allergies are known to cause.

However, Suzanne Keithley-Myers, the woman featured in the story had hives that made her want to “claw her flesh,” as well as stomach pain that made her fear for her life.

Alpha-gal allergy was discovered 7 years ago and now there are several thousand patients diagnosed with it.

Commins also states:

“I don’t want to alarm people, but I do feel that there probably is legitimate concern that this may be something that is the tip of the iceberg (in Minnesota) with the cases that you have at the moment.”

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