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What to know about alpha-gal

It’s started with steak, dairy, or a piece of sausage.

A growing number of people in the Heart of Virginia have reported unexplained allergic reactions from these products, reactions that were later connected to a molecule found in meat and meat-based substances.

Alpha-gal is a condition that is rapidly gaining prevalence in the Heart of Virginia.

The condition is believed to be spread by tick bites.

Centra Southside Community Hospital in Farmville will be hosting a luncheon and information session on alpha-gal, scheduled for Thursday, June 27, 1 p.m. at the hospital. Participants can register at (434) 315-2445.

Dr. Bikram Bal, gastroenterologist with Centra Health, said the tick can transmit an antibody that causes the individual to become resistant to galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose (alpha-gal), a oligosaccharide, or molecule present in mammalian meat.

Exposure to alpha-gal causes the person diagnosed with the condition to have a series of allergic reactions, some life-threatening.

“Every time you eat mammalian meat … whether it be deer, pork, beef, rabbit, any of that, your body has an immune reaction,” Bal said.

The reactions vary widely, Bal said.

“We are seeing people get anaphylactic reactions where they need epinephrine,” Bal said. There are also people with symptoms that include abdominal discomfort, bloating, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

“We see the whole gambit,” Bal said.

He said the rate that his office is diagnosing the condition is increasing at a startling rate. He estimates that his office is diagnosing five to six people a week with alpha-gal.

“I’m not even taking into account the medical center, the other doctors,” Bal said.

Bal said because the range of symptoms are mostly gastronomical, he sees a large volume of alpha-gall patients at his office.

People are tested for alpha-gal via a blood test, which determines whether or not people have the antibody that causes the allergic reactions.

Bal said there are things that people can do before going to a doctor to determine whether it’s possible they have the condition.

“If they are having some of these symptoms, they can start watching their diet, and if they feel that their symptoms are worse whenever they are eating mammalian meat that could give them a clue,” Bal said.

Bal said a common misconception of alpha-gal is that people only need to abstain from beef. He said pork, deer, rabbit and other meats also contain the molecule.

He said most people with alpha-gal only eat chicken, turkey and seafood.

Because the condition is believed to be tick-based, he recommended that people protect themselves against tick bites by using tick repellent, tucking pants into socks and wearing long sleeves when outdoors or in an area with a high population of ticks.

Bal said he sees more cases of alpha-gal in rural areas, where there are more ticks. It wasn’t as prevalent in urban areas.

‘NO TWO PEOPLE ARE THE SAME’

Dawn Bacon, director of curriculum and instruction at Lunenburg County Public Schools, said she started to notice blisters and sores forming in her mouth. She had a dental procedure recently, but the symptoms remained long after the procedure was over. She used mouth rinses and medications, but the sores lingered.

“It seemed like everything I took made it worse,” Bacon said.

In addition, she was starting to have other symptoms: nausea and breaking out into hives.

Bacon decided to take matters into her own hands. She noticed that her symptoms improved after taking antihistamines, used for allergy relief. After visiting doctors and the emergency room, she got an appointment with an allergist in Richmond.

He asked her about activities and things she liked doing. She recalls having a tick bite, and it being more difficult than usual to remove the tick. Once she was tested in January and her symptoms came back positive for alpha-gal, she wondered if a tick bite may have caused the symptoms.

She said the disease has changed her life, and for a long time she said her entire immune system was in flux. In addition to the alpha-gal diagnosis, she also tested positive for 55 other food allergens that weren’t beef, pork and dairy. She was prescribed an epinephrine pen.

“My immune system just was haywire,” Bacon said.

She orders most of her food and medication by mail, which includes duck, emu and ostrich from Amaroo Hills Farm run by someone who also has alpha-gal. She speaks with members of Facebook groups who also have alpha-gal.

“There are products out there,” Bacon said.

She said that a growing number of colleagues and friends are being diagnosed with alpha-gal.

While she has been able to reintroduce most of the 50-plus items she was allergic to, she still has a violent allergic reaction to dairy. But she said some people with alpha-gal don’t have reactions to dairy.

“No two people are the same with this allergy,” Bacon said.

She said there are some items that people may not consider have meat-byproducts, such as gel coating on medication, makeup products, even casing on some turkey hot dogs could have pork.

“It just became a lot more complicated than when I was first diagnosed,” Bacon said.

Lunenburg resident Bill Irby said his son, David, had been diagnosed with alpha-gal a few years ago. Irby said David, a dentist in Roanoke, has a lot of fish, duck and chicken, but avoids red meat.

Irby said David is handling the condition well and is learning more about it.