The Island’s newest star

Lone star ticks and alpha-gal syndrome comes a little too close to home.

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Emmett Athearn —Courtesy Hunter Athearn

My husband and I weren’t surprised when our younger son, Emmett, decided to plan a trip to Europe last fall. He’d been working all summer at his land surveying job, trekking through Island terrain in all kinds of weather, only spending money on take-out burgers and pizza, and the occasional new accessory for playing disc golf with his friends. He was ready for a change of scenery and cuisine. Always independent, with a confidence bordering on arrogance, Emmett was a natural adventurer. He’d been helping navigate highways and backroads since the days of Travel Little League, choosing restaurants and sights to see on family vacations. He was fully prepared and we were excited for him. 

Much to our surprise, he called halfway through his European adventure to tell us he was sick. He’d been barfing his way from Oktoberfest to the Eiffel Tower and the canals of Amsterdam. He’d tried to tough it out, but between language barriers and foreign foods, he couldn’t find anything his system could tolerate, let alone enjoy eating. We all decided it was time to come home and figure out what was going on. 

As an Island kid who spends much of his work and leisure time outside, Emmett was fairly certain the culprit was alpha-gal syndrome (AGS), an allergy triggered by a bite from the lone star tick. We had been hearing about AGS for a few years, as the lone star ticks started to populate the Island. I’m not much of a red meat eater, so I hadn’t given it much thought, but once a blood test confirmed that my baby was affected, I ran to the internet and researched with the obsessive dedication of a worried mother. 

Unfortunately, all that Googling turned up as many questions as answers; we don’t understand AGS all that well. Alpha-gal (galactose-α-1,3-galactose) is a sugar found in non-primate mammals — not just the meat, but also other products derived from it. It has been found in the saliva of certain ticks — the lone star being one of them — and is known to be transmitted in their bites, and can sometimes cause an allergy to alpha-gal in the bitten individual. But not always. Some people develop AGS after one bite, some after many, and some never will. It is unclear why most people encounter alpha-gal when eating meat their whole carnivorous lives with no problems, but this specific method of exposure to the sugar can trigger an allergy not only to the meat of mammals but to other products, like dairy and gelatin. Reactions vary in intensity — from hives to vomiting to anaphylaxis, and don’t start for hours after exposure, much longer than most other food allergies. 

For all of these reasons, diagnosis can be extremely difficult, particularly for people who live in areas where the allergy is uncommon. Emmett was lucky to have some knowledge of AGS before he got sick, and to have a doctor who recognized the signs right away and knew which blood test to order. Even still, food allergies are frustrating to live with, so much label-reading and explaining your quirky immune system. It can be isolating, too, especially for someone who loves sharing meals with other people. 

But Emmett approached this new challenge with his usual optimism and swagger. He gave us unsolicited reviews of new foods. Non-dairy “butter” tastes fine, but makes one wonder how they make vegetable oil a solid like that. Vegan cheese is abhorrently bland on its own, yet magically develops a cheese-like tang when added to another food. Emu and duck meat apparently taste like they are trying too hard to be something they aren’t. He didn’t miss red meat. Maybe because the memory of the sickness it caused was fresh in his mind, and maybe because he was back at home with his parents, who were spoiling him with sushi and salmon and roasted chicken dinners to ease the pain. 

Sure, he’s more careful now, both about what he eats and about avoiding ticks. He seems to be one of the lucky ones whose allergy is disappearing with time. But a new bite might bring it all back. He still works outside, and spends much of his leisure time in nature. Instead of squashing his spirit, the experience has taught him some valuable lessons about paying attention to what he’s eating, and how it makes him feel. That headstrong attitude of his helped him make small adjustments so his life wasn’t affected all that much. With a little preparation, and some permethrin-treated clothing, the world is still his oyster — sweet and juicy and alpha-gal free.