Doctors can be slow to hear about new health threats

How soon do physicians learn about a new health threat? Sometimes it takes longer than you would imagine. For example, health care providers are not yet thoroughly informed about sensitivity to a mammalian sugar called alpha-gal. This occurs following a bite from a lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum). Saliva from the tick triggers an immune reaction that can cause severe allergic symptoms. This condition has been known for at least a decade.

We recently received a letter from a physician in North Carolina:

“Seven months ago I was bitten by a lone star tick. I now have the alpha-gal disorder.

“I’ve had 25 significant allergic reactions since then while I’ve learned to cope by avoiding things that cause attacks. I had serious problems for months before the diagnosis was made. Because of a variety of symptoms, I consulted family physicians, an internist, an ear, nose and throat specialist, a health department physician and a neurologist before my wife made the diagnosis while listening to a program about alpha-gal on The People’s Pharmacy radio show.

“My symptoms were just as described on the program, and I had had a tick bite. I went to see an allergist, and he told me I probably didn’t have alpha-gal because my symptoms were not typical, despite the fact that my blood test was 15 times higher than normal.

“When I spoke with each of the other physicians and told them what I had, they admitted they had never heard of the problem. What is wrong with this picture? When a life-threatening problem exists, it seems there is little professional education or knowledge of how to prevent, diagnose or treat it.

“During a typical attack, my face, head, tongue and lips swell. The lips have gone to the point of bursting (requiring ice packs for six hours). I also suffer from cloudy thinking, visual disturbances, shortness of breath and increased phlegm, abdominal swelling, pain and eventually diarrhea.

“I take a course of steroids for the worst episodes, and I take a daily antihistamine. I keep an EpiPen handy but have only come close to using it twice.

“I now go to a specialist who understands my condition. I have learned what causes the episodes. In my case, that includes, in addition to all mammalian meats, at least these following ingredients: stearic acid (as in Advil and other pills); mono-, di- and triglycerides; glycerin; whey; milk; cheese; butter; gelatin; and vitamin D-3 (cholecalciferol) in some orange juice. Natural flavors made from meat products are found in lots of foods. I have my medicine made in vegetable capsules to avoid gelatin.

“I have a set of foods that I can eat safely, and I stick with them carefully. A simple mistake will make me sick for a week. I’ve found great fish and fowl. I eat a lot of eggs. You can lead a really good life despite alpha-gal with education, but a casual approach to food won’t work.”

People who live in areas where the lone star tick is common must be aware of this potentially life-threatening reaction. In addition to pork, beef, lamb and venison, alpha-gal shows up in dairy products like ice cream and in gelatin found in Jell-O, marshmallows, gummy vitamins and many capsules. The only protection is avoidance.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. In their column, the Graedons answer letters from readers. Write to them in care of King Features, 628 Virginia Drive, Orlando, FL 32803, or email them via their website:

2018 King Features Syndicate

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