I was preparing dinner when I noticed a tick bite: an insect the size of a macaw was settling in the trench of my inner elbow.
My wife brought a bottle of ethereal spray and a frozen tick, and I continued to prepare dinner.
Weeks later, as I spread out on the couch on Saturday night, I felt a slight itch on my arm. I rolled up my sleeve and noticed three red spots that looked like mosquito bites. Within seconds, more stains appeared on his neck and back.
These were not mozzie bites; they were hives. And they spread.
My wife drove me to the hospital, calmly respecting the speed limit despite my trouble. In the meantime, I could feel the hives expanding, rushing down my body as if my legs were the finish line.
I cooked with theories about the cause of the rash and two things came to my mind: first, a conversation I had with my father-in-law a few days after a tick bite, which reddened and swelled to the size of a golf ball.
The swelling indicated that the tick had inserted its saliva into my bloodstream, my father-in-law explained. “It might be a good idea to stick to the meat slowly,” he said.
The second thing I remembered was what I ate for lunch: a Greek Cypriot sausage called sheftalia – pork, onion and parsley wrapped in a net of coil fat.
Beef, pork and lamb are not off the table
When my wife and I arrived at the hospital, I was covered in beehives from head to toe. They caused a furious itch that radiated heat, as if I were standing over a fireplace while insects gnawed at my skin.
My vision was blurred and my stomach clenched.
Eventually, the doctor rolled toward me like a wombat emerging from his lair and asked how he could help. I couldn’t talk without stammering, so my wife explained the situation to me as he crept into his office.
The doctor examined the rash, then looked me in the eye and said, “urticaria.” It’s a medical term for hives – a new word for me.
He fed me a cocktail of antihistamines and steroids and added a tube of hydrocortisone cream to relieve the itching. I splashed it like sunscreen.
Within half an hour, the hives were almost gone.
Ten days later, I headed to the office of Associate Professor Sheryl Van Nunen, a Sydney allergist with a reputation that has reached the bottom of mysterious allergies, like the cunning detective who solves a cold case.
She located the results of my tests, turned her computer screen toward me, and confirmed what I suspected: I had developed a meat allergy as a result of a tick bite.
She prescribed me an EpiPen injection for automatic injection and ordered me to strictly avoid consuming all mammalian meat.
Beef, pork and lamb were completely off the table. From now on, I would be a quasi-vegetarian.
You can easily miss the connection
Despite this devastating development, I was in a way very lucky. I was already aware of this vague allergy, as my father-in-law Kevin Broady, one of Australia’s most prominent experts in the immunochemistry of toxins from the sting of a paralytic tick.
Although now retired, he is, along with Sheryl Van Nunen, a member of the Tick Allergy Research and Awareness Research (TiARA). The expert group is a reliable source of information and comfort for patients with mammalian meat allergy, especially in Eastern Australia, where paralyzed ticks are most common.
The specific allergen is galactose-α-1,3-galactose, better known as “alpha-gal”, a molecule found in non-primate mammals – cows, pigs, sheep and kangaroos, to name a few – and that can be transmitted to humans by tick bites.
Most food allergies, such as those to shrimp and peanuts, are caused by proteins, which trigger symptoms very quickly after consuming the allergen. But alpha-gal is a carbohydrate, and reactions can occur up to ten hours after the meat is eaten.
This means that sufferers often wake up in the middle of the night, a few hours after enjoying a dinner of lamb feed or beef bourguignon, with hives all over their bodies.
Once exposed, the body begins to see the alpha-gal present in mammalian meat as a threatening substance, which triggers a hypersensitive immune response, just like the one I experienced that Saturday night.
The delay between consumption and reaction makes the connection between meat and symptoms easily missed, and many of those who are alpha-gal positive pass for years without realizing that they are allergic to it.
Thanks to Kevin and my prior knowledge, I established the relationship almost immediately.
I am one of the lucky ones
I was also lucky because my body’s reaction was relatively mild. In severe cases, the response can result in cardiac arrest and even death.
Some are so sensitive that a visit to Bunnings is out of the question: vapors from the sausage can lead them to anaphylactic shock.
Others cannot wear Ugg boots or use certain soaps and medications without their hives appearing all over their skin.
Although there is no cure or cure, there is some The good news: many of those diagnosed can re-consume meat within a few years – but only if they avoid further tick bites.
Maybe good news for allergic people, but not so good for our fellow mammals, who might again find themselves on our plates.
As for me, I have been avoiding mammalian meat religiously for over a year and have generally had no symptoms.
I admit that if I did I can eat meat sometime in the future, the temptation to indulge occasionally might prove too strong. But right now I’m attracted to avoiding red meat forever.
Not only can this be a healthy and ethical diet, but it is also one of the best ways to reduce our impact on the planet.
You wonder: maybe ticks are trying to tell us something.