The 66-year-old guitarist from Brooksville, Florida, claimed that after receiving the blood thinner heparin in the hospital, his heart stopped beating. McCullick is fatally red meat allergy, a sugar found in heparin, which is manufactured from pig intestines, though neither he nor his doctors were aware of this at the time. McCullick claimed, “I flatlined and died on the table,” adding that it took seven minutes to restart his heart.
The bite of a lone star tick can result in red meat allergy, a reaction to a sugar present in dairy and red meat. According to estimates released on Thursday by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, it may now rank as the tenth most frequent meat allergy in the US, impacting up to 450,000 people. Additionally, it is one among the least well known.
Lack of knowledge and inadequate diagnosis
Only recently have researchers started to comprehend red meat allergy. A chemical known to scientists as galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, or alpha-gal, is transmitted by lone star ticks and maybe other types of parasites.
Dr. Scott Commins, associate chief for allergy and immunology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, has spent his career studying red meat allergy and is a co-author on the new studies released today by the CDC. “We think that they have an enzyme in their saliva that can produce alpha-gal,” he said.
The red meat allergy penetrates through the skin, which has its own immune sentinels ready to pounce on foreign intruders, when one of these ticks bites a person. The body appears to go into high alert for this sugar, which is present in non-primate mammals and in products derived from them, when exposed in this way. Alpha-gal syndrome patients frequently need to avoid dairy products, a variety of less evident goods including gel capsules and occasionally makeup, as well as red meat like beef, hog, and lamb.
Red meat allergy can be managed with lifestyle changes, but only if the person is aware of their condition. It can be challenging to get a diagnosis because the syndrome is not well-known among many clinicians.
In a survey of 1,500 US doctors and nurse practitioners for a study that was published on Thursday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 42% of respondents stated they had never heard of the allergy. A further third of those polled admitted that they lacked confidence in their capacity to identify or treat an red meat allergy patient.
Most people with red meat allergy experience a sizable delay between the onset of their symptoms and their diagnosis, according to surveys of these patients. McCullick wasn’t identified until 2022, even though he believes he contracted alpha-gal syndrome from a tick he removed from his forehead in 2018.
red meat allergy differs from a conventional food allergy in that it does not cause a bodily reaction immediately after consumption. Instead, individuals with alpha-gal allergy frequently experience symptoms four to six hours after consuming red meat or dairy, making it difficult for them to link their symptoms to their diet. Hives, shortness of breath, or even life-threatening anaphylaxis are examples of reactions.
“I didn’t knew if I would wake up in the morning when I went to bed each night. And I never knew what was going to happen every time I couldn’t breathe or my heart stopped a beat,” McCullick added.
“I can compare it to perhaps being a soldier in a foxhole with shells falling down all around because the future didn’t seem to be very bright. It was genuinely mentally distressing to not know when your final breath would be. And that’s not just me; there are countless numbers of examples that are identical to mine,” he stated.
An increase in diagnoses
How many Americans may suffer from red meat allergy is a subject of debate among researchers.
The majority of alpha-gal testing in the US was conducted by Viracor in Lenexa, Kansas, until 2022. Epidemiologists at the CDC examined anonymized test results from this lab for blood tests conducted from 2017 through 2022 for the current study. During this time, doctors requested nearly 300,000 tests for alpha-gal, and 30% of them, or about 90,000, were positive.
The study’s authors calculated that between 2010 and 2022, there were 110,000 suspected cases of alpha-gal syndrome detected in the US by combining the results of those tests with those from earlier research.
The researchers updated their data on the assumption that between 20% and 78% of instances are likely undetected due to the lack of knowledge among healthcare professionals. They concluded from this that since 2010, there may have been between 96,000 and 450,000 Americans impacted by red meat allergy.
The figures astonished Commins. The quantity of possible cases is much greater than anticipated, he declared. This allergy is number 10 in the nation, behind sesame, which is number nine and affects over half a million individuals, according to Commins. “If the projection and estimate of nearly 450,000 cases is even approximately correct,” Commins added.
Furthermore, the figures changed with time. Dr. Johanna Salzer, the chief epidemiologist for rickettsial diseases at the CDC, is the study’s author. “Every year, we see an increased number of suspected cases that are captured in this lab-based surveillance,” she said.
According to Salzer, it’s unclear whether the rise in instances is due to greater awareness of the illness and testing for it, or if there are other factors at play, such as tick populations thriving in the warmer temperatures brought on by climate change.
Salzer remarked, “I think it may definitely be both.
The locations of the positive tests were also mapped by Salzer and her team, who discovered that they were concentrated in a belt of states running across the centre of the US and encompassing the South, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic areas. The lone star tick is known to spread various illnesses including the bacterial disease ehrlichiosis in this area.
“This illness need not be fatal,”
McCullick was routinely taken to the emergency department with life-threatening allergic responses that resulted in heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and dangerously low blood pressure before he learned to stay away from specific animal products. He frequently received heart attack treatment.
Additionally, red meat allergy changed the way his body processed cholesterol, which blocked the arteries leading to his heart. According to him, reactions may result from simply breathing in a steakhouse or other environment where meat is being cooked.
I used to find that eating ice cream was excruciatingly painful for my throat, oesophagus, and chest. They had the impression of a stubborn charley horse, according to McCullick.
“And then it gives you severe heartburn, feels like a hiatal hernia,” he added. “Then it gets down into your stomach, and it feels like a roll of barbed wire is rolling around in your intestines.”
Prior to speaking with a representative from his health insurance company, McCullick continued this cycle of eating and anaphylaxis. The agent informed him after looking over his data that the pattern of hospitalisations appeared to be familiar.
He told me, ‘You know, you sound like what happened to me.’ ‘I’m allergic to beef and pig,’ he declared. Additionally, you ought to be examined to determine whether you are allergic to beef or pork, McCullick stated.
A lightbulb suddenly lit up. He discovered that every time he consumed red meat, he became ill. He became sure after conducting online research, and he saw an allergist who made the diagnosis. So, basically by happenstance, and with a lot of independent investigation and support from friends, McCullick said, “my diagnosis was made.” If we merely know about it, this sickness doesn’t have to be fatal, McCullick added. Just by spreading the necessary knowledge, many people could be saved.