12 Investigates: Tick bite causes meat allergy

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - A tick bite may be to blame for a meat allergy that nearly killed a Richmond man.

The tick-induced allergy is so unusual and unknown, doctors have trouble identifying it.

Emmanuel Spencer never had allergies a day in his life, but he went into full anaphylactic shock after eating meat while on vacation. His isn't the only bizarre case.

The Spencer family was oblivious to the hazard ahead while on their vacation in the Caribbean Sea - Emmanuel would teeter between life and death.

"I feel like I have to throw up. I go into bathroom. I get dizzy. I'm walking out of the bathroom and that's when I'm feeling my throat closing up," said Emmanuel.

The horrific illness struck several hours after Emmanuel had eaten a steak dinner and gone to bed. Intense itching woke him up to hives all over his body.

"My throat is closing up and I'm telling her, pointing to my throat, 'I can't breathe.' I sit on the bed. It's just getting worse and worse."

In Jamaica, with insurance that's worthless here and no 911 service, the Spencers were at the mercy of overseas doctors.

Their sons have prescribed epi-pens for their allergies, so Tracie gave her husband a shot. Their older son ran to pressure the hotel staff again for a doctor while his younger brother phoned from the room.

Tracie administered CPR. Her husband fell unconscious three times.

"After the epi-pen shot, he tried to get up," said Tracie. "He passed out again. My son is screaming at this point, 'My daddy's dying! My dad is dead! My dad just died!'"

How a tick bite induces an allergic reaction to meat is being studied by allergists at the University of Virginia.

"We are 99 percent sure now that it's ticks - and most certainly, dominantly, the 'Lone Star.'" said Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills.

Dr. Platts-Mills discovered the link after he was bitten numerous times hiking. The lone star tick, identified by the white spot on its back, is common in the southeast and appears to be on the move by C.D.C. mapping.

So far, about 1,500 people have the mysterious meat allergy.

"Ticks can carry many different things. Ticks have been suggested as a candidate for bio-terrorism. You could put a pathogen into the tick in to make people sick but, we don't think that's it," said Dr. Platts-Mills.

Spit from the tick provokes the immune system to make an anti-body in reaction to sugar in the meat called 'alpha-gal.'

So, the next time a person who's been bitten by a tick eats meat, a violent reaction occurs, several hours later.

"If she didn't have the epi-pen, I wouldn't be here now telling this story. Most people don't carry epi-pens," said Emmanuel.

Emmanuel didn't discover the cause of his near death allergy attack until he was state side and saw an allergist.

"She started asking questions. 'Have you ever had a tick bite?' I was like, 'Yeah. About six weeks ago.'"

The UVA doctor's theory is people are getting bitten in their own yards and deer are carrying the ticks.

He says leash laws prevent dogs from hunting deer, and if they are startled, the deer just move on to the neighbor's lawn.

To avoid anaphylactic shock, tick bite victims are not to eat beef, pork or lamb.

"A man in Missouri admitted he had a reaction after eating squirrel. Any animal that is not a monkey, great ape, or a human has this sugar and can cause a reaction," said Dr. Platts-Mills.

"It's a life changer," said Emmanuel. "The little things I used to get upset about or worry about, now I don't. It doesn't even matter."

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