12:10 p.m. July 26, 2013

Attack Of The Meat Ticks

It is the stuff of a lurid vegan revenge fantasy set in the Southeastern United States. Deer hunters, cattle ranchers, and assorted omnivorous outdoor enthusiasts threatened by a hungry horde of ticks. These aren’t just any ticks, but the product of decades’ worth of covert experimentation by a cruelty-free mad-scientist collective. Sneaking through the woods with boxes of the voracious hematophages, the smell of patchouli lingering in the wet summer air, the nefarious activists finger their PETA buttons in anticipation. Stooping towards the leaf litter, they take a knee.

“This’ll teach ’em not to grill my marinated mushrooms next to the murder patties.”

A moment of silence as the box is placed on the forest floor. The label reads Top Secret Project #002. Beneath it, a slip of white tape, emblazoned with the print of the lab’s label maker, codename: THE CURE.

Hushed exuberances rattle the saplings as the lid is removed and thousands of weaponized ticks begin their mission: to make America allergic to meat.

* *

Except this is no vegan sci-fi melodrama: lone star tick bites really are making people allergic to meat. And, as it usually goes, the truth is definitely stranger than fiction.

It’s not like ticks weren’t already awful. Parasites that anchor their sharp face parts into flesh and gorge themselves on blood, ticks seem like the nightmarish creation of a particularly morbid eight-year-old. The body of a leech, swollen with blood, from which the eight spidery legs wiggle helplessly, twitching in the turgidity of gluttony. Sometimes these arachnids pop when you remove them.

Back in my veterinary-assistant days we would take perverse amounts of pride in the art of tick-removal; remarkably engorged ticks removed without popping were displayed in clear plastic jars filled with formalin, alongside the specimens we used to help pet owners learn to identify tick species. My all-time best was the successful removal of a brown-dog tick that was bigger than a grape. I took great pleasure in trotting out the horror of its bloated form whenever clients questioned the vigor of the local ticks.

But the real reason to be wary of ticks isn’t their propensity for dramatic splatter. It’s disease.

From rodents they have generously introduced us to Lyme disease, with its foreboding bullseye rash. They’ve also gifted us with Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which spatters palms and soles with the tell-tale rashes of the deadliest of the rickettsial illnesses. Ticks can also spread another parasite of the genus Rickettsia, typhus. Through the infectious disease of human granulocytic anaplasmosis they give our neutrophils the dangerous gift of prolonged life. They spread their own flavivirus, a cousin of West Nile and Dengue, that causes encephalitis, meningitis, or a combination of the two, inflaming the delicate tissue that surrounds the brain or even the brain itself. The kiss of a tick inoculates its loving host with a neurotoxin produced in its salivary gland; prolonged exposure to the feasting arachnid can induce fatal chemical paralysis if the visitor is not removed. Ticks bestow upon us the ulcerating lesions of Tularemia, the crimson torrents of Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, and the malarial-like protozoan disease babseosis.

They can infest your home, marching up your walls and curtains. And if all of that wasn’t enough of a testament to the mighty power of the tick, there’s this: one bite from a common variety of tick can render you an unwilling vegetarian.

Let me walk you through it.

The culprit is the lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum, which gets its name from the whitish spot on the back of the female. Found predominantly in the southeastern United States, but present from Texas to Maine and spreading, our intrepid sanguivore clings to a blade of grass, questing. Like other members of the hard tick family, it seeks a host by perching on the very edges of low-lying vegetable matter, clinging tight with all but its front two legs. When questing, the tick extends its free legs upwards and out with the arhythmic sway of the highest dude at a Phish show. Should its target brush near, those segmented grappling hooks will whisk the tick away to the land of plenty.

On the back of one of the front legs is a sensory organ that is equal parts nose and weather station called Hallar’s organ. Able to detect olfactory cues, humidity, temperature, and carbon dioxide levels, the tick uses it to detect the presence of warm, breathing hosts. A runner in the woods, radiating increased body heat, breathing fast and hard, is a tick’s dinner bell.

Walking through the grass in your favorite casual loafers, your bare ankle grazes the questing tick, its softly motioning legs at the ready thanks to all of the delicious cues your mere presence exudes. These ticks are aggressive and hungry and happy to see you. Known as a voracious eater who will make a blood meal out of both birds and mammals, the lone star tick bites even in the larval stage. It’s known as a three-host tick because it feeds on a different host during each developmental stage. The tiny six-legged larvae (also known as “seed ticks” and sometimes misidentified as chiggers) and the eight-legged nymph stages tend to prefer to dine on small wildlife such as birds and rodents. The adult stage likes to go for the big guys, like deer and livestock, and as such will quest from the highest location, compared to the youngins. Humans are on the menu at all life stages and today, that soft ankle of yours is the blue-plate special.

You walk by the tick who is waiting for this very moment and--now you have a friend. A friend who is going to bite you.

Well actually, the term “bite” is a bit of a misnomer, I’m afraid. Ticks don’t so much bite as they do pierce and suck. Once the lone star tick -- oh hell, you guys are in this together now, she deserves a name. Let’s call her Lizzie Báthory. Okay, so once Miss Báthory has found her cozy spot on your person, she makes a small slit in your skin with her chelicerae, a delightful set of barbed mouthparts. Into the cut goes her hypostome, a gruesome drinking straw studded with an impressive array of backwards-facing hooks that anchor her to your body. She wouldn’t want her long-awaited meal to get away, now would she?

She then secretes a fluid into your open wound that literally cements her mouthparts to your flesh.

The good news is that you will feel none of this. The bad news is she and her Weaponized By NatureTM blood straw are going to drink your milkshake.

And drink it up she does.

Later, when you begin waking yourself up at night with your relentless scratching, your body riddled with red, splotchy welts, you probably won’t be thinking of that summer day you spent with Lizzie Báthory when she supped on your vitals. Who would attribute that stuffy, runny nose you keep getting to anything but the orgiastic levels of plant sex floating in the air? Maybe you are running to the toilet in unpredictable gastric distress. Maybe you start getting more headaches than usual. Maybe your throat starts to close and lips swell without apparent provocation and, baffled, you must begin carrying an epi-pen at all times, lest anaphylaxis rear its unwelcome visage. Oh, and you probably won’t attribute this weird, new allergy to the same Thursday dinner you’ve been eating for decades.

What the fuck?

Here’s what the research says. Just one bite from a lone star tick has been shown to significantly raise serum IgE antibodies to a long-chain sugar [galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose or “alpha-gal”)]found in non-primate mammalian meat. In other words, when the lone star tick bites you, your body designates alpha-gal as a dangerous intruder, rather than a benign compound. Omnivores eat this sugar all the time, which means people aren’t developing the allergy from exposure. How exactly the tick bite triggers the allergy remains unclear; all we currently know is that it happens. And so far, the only cause for alpha-gal allergy that researchers have found is the bite of the lone star tick.

It’s potentially worth noting that if you develop an alpha-gal allergy, you are cleared to eat primate and fowl alike, though I believe the legality on the former is a bit shaky.

This is weird in a way that gets researchers all excited. First off, most food allergies are a response to a protein, not a sugar. Second, this is the first known example of an important food allergy that results from a response to an ectoparasite. And finally, alpha-gal allergy is extra weird because of how it affects patients. Namely: later.

With other food allergies, the reaction begins when the offending food is consumed. If you give Suzy Peanut-Allergy a Snickers bar, brace for an immediate reaction. So it’s strange that with alpha-gal, this is not the case. As allergist Dr. Erin McGintee told CNN, alpha-gal allergy constitutes the first known case of delayed anaphylaxis.

Waking up in the middle of the night with your throat swelling shut because that fucking tick bite made you allergic to the burger that you are now digesting – that’s pretty shitty. But not even knowing why you are waking up choking is worse. Luckily, thanks to Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, Dr. Scott P. Commins, and a team of researchers at the University of Virginia, clues are beginning to emerge.

The search began with researchers investigating why some cancer patients were having a bad reaction to an antibody called cetuximab; the culprit was alpha-gal. When the company reformulated the product to eliminate alpha-gal, reactions stopped. But there was a surprise in the reaction data: reports of hypersensitivity to the drug were essentially restricted to southeastern states. Broadening their search, the researchers screened large numbers of sera and found that persons positive for alpha-gal antibodies were also distributed in a pattern that matched that of reported cetuximab anaphylaxis.The researchers then linked IgE to alpha-gal with an allergy specific to mammalian meat. Curiously, the allergy was appearing in patients who had been consuming and tolerating red meat for years before they developed the allergy. Something else was causing it.

The hunt was on. Researchers eliminated pollens, fungi and parasitic worms as potential allergens. Noticing that the areas of interest were also areas with high prevalence of other tick-borne diseases, the researchers turned to ticks and found compelling evidence that the bite of a lone star tick can trigger alpha-gal allergy.

There are no clear answers right now. How does the bite give rise to the allergy? Who develops the allergy and why? Why do some people develop such a severe alpha-gal allergic response that they cannot eat marshmallows or take medicines that are encased within a gelatin capsule, while others just have to steer clear of beef and pork, tolerating the occasional pork sausage casing without incident? And why exactly are the reactions delayed so long?

Upon closer look, perhaps this isn’t the plot of a daring revenge fantasy perpetuated by a cadre of brilliant vegans. Perhaps instead we are trapped in a cautionary tale, a fable to whisper to arrogant, impatient children…

*

Months passed with nary a whiff of the terrible new meat allergy sweeping through the country. Summer churned on while anxious vegans clung to their Google alerts with increasing desperation. Without letting flesh pass their lips, they’d taken their miracle cure themselves by ingesting a cancer drug containing the keystone of their work: a long-chain sugar identical to the one in meat. The ludicrous genius, a sugar molecule instead of a protein! How clever, a solution that allowed them to ingest their allergy-causing agent without consuming one iota of dead flesh!

Their restlessness mounted. Some began to lurk in BBQ restaurants, stinking themselves up with seared meat as they stared at the half-masticated beef tumbling about in the mouths of strangers. Others, despondent, began to purchase small packages of meat. Just to hold it, they’d say. Just to look at it. Hidden beneath bags of kale, behind bottles of fermented black tea, was the meat. The golden test at arms’ reach.

One of the key scientists in the development of The Cure had such a freezer. Its contents belied her façade of placid stability. Family packages of beef tips, skillfully marinated pork tenderloins, individually wrapped ground beef patties stacked ten high, she found herself buying meat every time she went to the store. Sometimes she’d go to the store just for bacon. Just this once, she’d say as she slipped the package into the cold.

Eventually, she bought a second fridge. For a week she wrapped all of her meat in newspaper to hide it from sight. The frenzied unwrapping event that came after sent the neighbor to her door, concerned by the loud thuds of frozen meat hitting the floor.

She started buying deep freezers off of Craigslist. It excited her when there was deer blood mixed into the still-melting ice when she came to pick it up.

At night, when she couldn’t sleep, she’d thaw a filet mignon and stroke it through the clear plastic wrapper. At breakfast she would eat her cereal while staring at a full rack of ribs, count the veins and stare at the bones through the ice.

She’d always told herself that she was buying the meat so that others could not, but in the thin light of that fateful February morning, even she couldn’t run from her arrogance any longer.

The contents of the pan hissed seductively as she waited. The letter only took three drafts to compose and it sat in a plain envelope on the kitchen counter, next to the epi-pen, just in case she didn’t inject in time. She knew it would work. The Cure was her Theory of Relativity, it was her Second Law of Thermodynamics, it was her radium, her double-helix, her Human Genome Project. And she was going to prove it.

The bacon cooled. Gingerly, she took a bite. Nothing. She ate a whole slice. Nothing. She ate the whole package and still, nothing. Nothing!

Stunned, she sat amongst the wreckage of her madness. Her apartment packed with meat, her body tainted by the gruesome death of another, her lofty genius shattered – for nothing! The Cure was a failure, it did not work on real meat. It did not work as planned.

In her distress, she did not even brush the murder off of her teeth before she went to work at the lab. Nor did she take her epi-pen.

Hours later, she was found on the lab floor, as still and as cold as the meat in her freezers.