Why are so many people getting a meat allergy?
Becoming allergic to meat turns your life upside down. Known as alpha-gal allergy, the condition dictates what you can eat, wear, how you relax, and even which medicines are safe. Is research finally starting to catch up?
IT IS early morning in early summer, and I am tracing my way through the woods of central North Carolina, steering cautiously around S-curves and braking hard when what looks like a small rise turns into a narrow bridge.
I am on my way to meet Tami McGraw, who lives with her husband and the youngest of their kids in a sprawling development of old trees and wide lawns just south of Chapel Hill.
Before I reach her, McGraw emails. She wants to feed me when I get there: “Would you like to try emu?” she asks. “Or perhaps some duck?
These are not normal breakfast offerings. But for years, nothing about McGraw’s life has been normal.
She cannot eat beef or pork, or drink milk or eat cheese or snack on a gelatine-containing dessert without feeling her throat close and her blood pressure drop. Wearing a wool sweater raises hives on her skin; inhaling the fumes of bacon sizzling on a stove will knock her to the ground.
Everywhere she goes, she carries an array of tablets that can beat back an allergy attack, and an auto-injecting EpiPen that can jolt her system out of anaphylactic shock.
McGraw is allergic to the meat of mammals and everything else that comes from them: dairy products, wool and fibre, gelatine from their hooves, char from their bones.
This syndrome affects some thousands of people in the US and an uncertain but likely larger number worldwide, and after a decade of research, scientists have begun to understand what causes it.
It is created by the bite of a tick, picked up on a hike or brushed against in a garden, or hitchhiking on the fur of a pet that was roaming outside.
The illness, which generally goes by the name ‘alpha-gal allergy’ after the component of meat that triggers it, is a trial that McGraw and her family are still learning to cope with. In much the same way, medicine is grappling with it too.
Allergies occur when our immune systems perceive something that ought to be familiar as foreign. For scientists, alpha-gal is forcing a remapping of basic tenets of immunology: how allergies occur, how they are triggered, whom they put in danger and when.
For those affected, alpha-gal is transforming the landscapes they live in, turning the reliable comforts of home – the plants in their gardens, the food on their plates – into an uncertain terrain of risk…..