Doris Fox was 34 years old when she first experienced anaphylactic shock.
She was returning home from lunch with her daughter when abdominal cramps and severe diarrhea began; Moments later, her heart was beating fine and she was struggling to breathe.
He rushed to the emergency room, and none of the doctors knew the cause of the reaction. They didn’t realize that Fox had developed a rare but severe case of “alpha-gal syndrome” – an allergy to red meat.
“I felt like I was going to die,” Fox, now 57, told the star.
Fox, a former nurse from Windsor, Ont., survived her first anaphylactic attack in 1999, but struggled a lot over the years before an allergist suggested a cause for her in 2012. The doctor said her problems likely started with a bite from the lone star tick.
Lone star ticks can be found in large swarms throughout the eastern, southeastern and midwestern United States, said Robin Lindsey, a research scientist at Public Health Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory.
Each year, Public Health Canada is notified of an average of ten single ticks in “nearly every province,” Lindsay said, indicating the potential for tick transmission on migratory birds or animals.
Recent research reads that only the southernmost fringes of Ontario and Quebec are warm enough to complete their life cycle. There is no evidence of colony breeding in Canada yet.
Adult females with a lonely star wear a white “star” on their back; Adult males have white stripes and freckles. They are most active from May to about July or August, Lindsey said.
“They grow in very large numbers, and they are very aggressive,” he continued. “They bite people at all three stages of development, which is a little strange – most ticks in Canada, they only bite people when they are either nymphs or adults.”
But how can a tick bite cause an allergy?
The secret lies in the saliva, said Shaun Dergosof, a research scientist who specializes in ticks and cattle parasites at the Lethbridge Research and Development Center.
Only tick saliva contains a sugar molecule called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, or “alpha-gal” for short. This same molecule is found in most mammals, from cows and sheep to deer and rabbits, Dergusov said.
Alpha-gal is harmless on its own – the problem begins when it is introduced into the bloodstream. Dergousoff explained that when alpha-gal enters the blood, the immune system sometimes mistakes the harmless sugar as an invader.
As with all invaders, the body’s alpha-gal form is bound by memory. That way, the next time he encounters something the same, he’ll be ready to respond. This is how vaccines work, Dergusov added.
Unfortunately, the immune system is also prone to an overreaction, which is when an allergy occurs – when the body attacks itself to kill an imaginary enemy.
When the body re-encounters the alpha-gal, like eating a nice steak, it switches to defense mode. Dergusov said rashes and hives often flare up, followed by swelling in certain parts of the body, shortness of breath, nausea and more.
He said symptoms and their severity can vary widely from person to person.
“The very difficult thing about determining the cause of[alpha-gal allergy]is that it is kind of a delayed reaction,” Dergusov said. Unlike most allergies, an alpha-gal allergy can sometimes take up to ten hours to appear.
Doris Fox can attest to that.
“My reaction has always been eight to ten hours after exposure,” she said. “Imagine you wake up at 3 in the morning and think you’re having a heart attack, you don’t really know what’s going on in the middle of the night.
“It’s terrifying. It’s a life-threatening disease,” she said.
“In 2018, I was having up to 10 anaphylactic attacks a week,” she said. “I told my husband, ‘You know what, let’s just plan my funeral because one day we won’t be able to stop it.'”
After years of avoiding red meat and continuing to trigger her anaphylaxis, Fox finally realized why. The supplements you took daily were based on mammals.
“I had no proof,” she said. “I’ve never known gelatin, like, you know, jello, and vitamin D3, all this health regimen was causing my anaphylaxis.”
There’s a reason many medical professionals remain in the dark about alpha-gal syndrome — it’s an extremely rare disease, especially in Canada, said Nick Ogden, director of public health risk sciences at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory.
“I guess I’d never say no,” he said, “but I think it’s very unlikely” that you’d get an allergy in Canada.
Not only are single star ticks so rare in Canada, in order to develop alpha-gal syndrome, Ogden said you have to be “bitten repeatedly” by the creatures.
But as temperatures rise, it can become more common.
“Canada will become more suitable for[lone star ticks]in the coming decades,” Ogden said.
It’s not just a lone tick star. Ticks of all types are growing in number and staying active for longer — some year-round, said Ian Sandler, chief veterinary medical officer at Gray Wolf Animal Health in Toronto.
“Tick-borne diseases in general, primarily Lyme disease, are on the rise significantly,” he said. “…the fact that we have the only asterisk that we see now (in Canada) is definitive evidence of climate change.”
Sandler recommends routinely checking yourself and your pet for ticks, especially after walking outside. Try wearing long sleeves and consider using tick repellent on yourself and your pets.
As for Doris Fox, her allergic reactions faded once she began to be interested in and avoid all mammalian products. She said she credits alternative medicine with saving her life — it gave her hope when doctors couldn’t.
“I’ve spent $400,000 out of my pocket (on alternative medicine) to save my life since 2014 because there is no help in our medical system,” she said.
“We had to refinance our house,” she continued. “My husband says my life is more important than money.”