As more cases of the alpha-gal tick-borne disease are being reported in the UK, what is it and why does it cause an allergic reaction to meat in some cases?
A small number of ticks can be infected with bacteria, viruses or parasites, and they can transmit them to humans when they attach.
The most common disease this causes in the UK is Lyme disease with up to 4,000 cases in England and Wales each year, but ticks carrying tick-borne encephalitis have been found in the UK and can also cause alpha-gal syndrome.
Anaphylaxis UK claims that alpha-gal causes an unusual type of food allergy caused by the transfer of a type of carbohydrate found in the muscles of mammals that ticks feed on.
When you are bitten by a tick carrying this molecule, it enters the bloodstream and triggers an immune response.
The next time you eat meat from mammals such as lamb, beef, or pork, the body will then be tricked into believing that they pose a threat.
“Risk of sting common all year round”
Professor Richard Wall from the University of Bristol explained: “Ticks have this alpha-gal sugar in their saliva, when they feed they inject it into your bloodstream, then you mount an immune response to this sugar. You have antibodies against it.
“That sugar is also in meat, in mammalian products, so you have an immune response against that particular compound.
“In previous years we wouldn’t see them biting in the winter, it would be a spring peak of tick bites, then there would be no bites in the summer, then a smaller peak in the fall, but now with the change climate, we certainly see them biting all winter long and we see a gradual change in seasonal patterns, so the risk of biting is now quite common throughout the season.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of alpha-gal allergy are usually delayed, appearing three to eight hours after eating. This is unlike most other food allergies, where symptoms usually appear within minutes.
There is little research on the syndrome, particularly in the UK, and reactions may differ from person to person.
They can include stomach cramps, diarrhea, hives, and shortness of breath that can trigger life-threatening anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction involving multiple organ systems that may require urgent medical attention.
Last week, the Center for Disease Control in the United States said the number of Americans with allergies was increasing and affecting up to 450,000 people. specialist immunology consultants in the UK say the number here is much lower.
However, victims told Sky News they faced long waits to get the right care.
Dr Gururaj Arumugakani is a Consultant in Allergy and Clinical Immunology with the NHS in Leeds. He told Sky News the wait time for referrals from immunology specialists is “easily over six months in most centres, and in some centers it can be between a year and two years”.
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“It’s a combination of both a shortage of specialists and increased allergy recognition,” he said.
“Besides traditional allergies, they also have to deal with drug allergies, and recently there’s been a huge outpouring of concern about COVID vaccine allergies, so they’ve handed over more samples because they need to. treat them with precision.”
What should I do?
If you think you may be allergic to alpha-gal, see your GP who can refer you to a specialist allergy clinic if necessary.
They can find a clinic in your area through the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology.