Tick-borne disease makes Arkansans allergic to meat


BELLA VISTA, Ark. (KNWA) — Bob McClendon first saw the symptoms in April 2016, but doctors kept prescribing him antibiotics. They weren’t yet aware that he was infected with alpha-gal syndrome (AGS), an allergy that is transmitted by tick bites.

“There’s no part of your body that won’t be affected,” McClendon, a Bella Vista resident, said. “None, from your head to your toe.”

Alpha-gal syndrome is most common in the Central and Southern states, according to the public awareness group Alpha-Gal Encouragers. The symptoms range from hives, rashes, blisters and lesions. Perhaps the most-unique symptom is that it causes the affected person to be allergic to mammalian meat and its by-products.

“Once you get the allergy, the only treatment is avoiding things that are mammal,” said Dr. Tina Merritt of the Allergy & Asthma Clinic of NWA. “That means foods, but it also includes products. So, we have to watch what shampoo we use, what makeup we use.”

The allergy is transmitted through Lone Star tick bites. The parasites live primarily in wooded areas seen throughout Arkansas.

“Arkansas is in the heart of it when you look at the map of the voluntary reported cases,” McClendon said. “There’s no way of knowing the [number of people] that’s infected.”

McClendon, who said he used to be a burger connoisseur, had an anaphylactic reaction after eating steak. That’s when he was finally diagnosed with an alpha-gal allergy.

“I woke up, luckily, right before I suffocated,” McClendon said. “I was unable to breathe. I rolled over into the floor on my hands and knees. I was unable to stand.”

McClendon willed himself to an Epinephrine Auto-Injector, or EpiPen, that forced his airwaves open in a matter of minutes. The device quite probably saved his live.

“That’s why I’m sharing this story,” McClendon said. “If I can save somebody from going through what I’m going through, it’s worth it. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.”

An Alpha-Gal Encouragers list shows the steps people can take to prevent the spread of the disease and infection, including covering up when traversing through wooded areas and using insect repellents.

Merritt said the symptoms can show up years after a tickbite. She said the allergy may recede over time unless a person receives another bite, but that isn’t always the case.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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