Hold on to your hats, meat lovers, because I’ve got some bad news for you. There exists an insect, a tick in fact, that can, with just one bite, turn you off meat entirely.
The tick in question is the Lone Star Tick, known also by its more scientific name Amblyomma americanum, and it is indigenous to the United States of America and Mexico. The Lone Star Tick loves to hang out in wooded areas, particularly forests that have a thick underbrush (sometimes called second-growth forests), as this is where their primary hosts – the white-tailed deer, reside.
As with most ticks, the bite of the Lone Star Tick often goes unnoticed and is pretty much painless. This despite the fact that the tick is a very aggressive feeder, pursuing blood meals without caring about the species of its host. To the tick, all blood is equal. They can stay attached to their host for up to seven days, continually sucking on that deep red life juice. Larvae and nymphs have been found attached to birds and small mammals, and the tick will feed on humans at any point in their life cycle.
While the bite of the Lone Star Tick may go unnoticed, its effects certainly won’t. What makes this tick so noteworthy is the fact that its bite can cause a human to develop an allergy to meat from mammals (mammalian meat). So, you know, that’s pork, beef, venison, veal, lamb…all your favourites down the hatch. The allergy is caused by the alpha-gal sugar the tick carries, which it injects into its hosts while feeding. This substance is found in all mammals, excluding Old World Monkeys (from Asia and Africa) and apes – this includes humans! That’s why it has such a strong effect on us; it’s alien to our bodies.
This meat allergy is most common in the southern and central United States, corresponding to the distribution of the Lone Star Tick. The Southern United States has allergy rates 32% higher than anywhere else, in no small part because this is the tick’s favoured stomping grounds.
The exact number of individuals affected by this alpha-gal allergy is unknown, primarily because doctors are not required to report patients suffering from the allergy. There is no known cure, though symptoms may go away over time. But there’s no guarantee of that – some patients have reported symptoms lasting over 20 years!
So, when you’re exploring the woods, out on a hike, having a good time, remember the Lone Star Tick. Check your legs regularly, wash them and your clothes thoroughly when you get home, and for goodness’ sake, remember to wear thick socks and boots. This will help prevent the tick from being able to stay attached to you. After all, we all want to go on enjoying meat for as long as possible.