Chappell

Things learned as an intern: Tick bites can cause meat allergies

STAFF WRITERSeptember 16, 2011 

On Fridays, The News & Observer runs guest columns from staff members. Helen Chappell, an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow, interned at The N&O this summer.

One night recently, I looked into the mirror and the Stay Puft marshmallow man looked back.

Either I needed to call Ghostbusters or visit the hospital. A phone consultation with Dr. Mom convinced me the latter was a better choice.

There, they declared I was having a severe allergic reaction and gave me enough meds to render me insensible.

Once I was coherent, I inventoried everything I'd eaten that day. I'd had a burger on the road in South Carolina, but otherwise nothing unusual for me.

I don't eat meat often, but I've eaten it my whole life.

How could I develop an allergy to something I've always eaten?

And then those words, "allergy to something I'd always eaten," rang a bell. I'd heard them back in June, when I had just started as the N&O's science intern. At the time, I was working on a story about ticks.

One of the folks I spoke to for that story, Barry Engber, at the time a medical entomologist for the state, told me about a weird tick-related allergy in the Southeast. He said some people had developed an allergy to meat - something they'd always eaten - after a tick bite.

And guess what I'd gotten earlier in the summer? A tick bite.

When I was first writing the tick story, I didn't follow up on the meat allergy. It was intriguing, but it just wouldn't fit into my story.

But experiencing something for yourself has a funny way of making you really interested all of a sudden.

So I called the doctor at the University of Virginia whose team is researching this allergy, Dr. Tom Platts Mills. I asked him if I was crazy.

"Most of the patients who come to see us are looking to be reassured they're not mad," he told me.

Oh, good. I wasn't alone.

He then gave me the lowdown on the science of it all. Something that ticks spit into us when they bite - maybe their saliva, maybe a germ they're carrying - provokes some people's immune systems to make antibodies against a kind of sugar in certain meats.

Later, when they eat one of those meats - beef, pork, lamb, most of the good ones - those antibodies attack the sugar in that meat like it's an invading disease.

In the worst reactions, so many antibodies attack that the body freaks out and goes Stay Puft on its unsuspecting owner, sometimes even suffocating them.

Absolutely wild, but the wildest part for me is that this allergy was discovered so recently that I never would have heard of it if not for my conversation with Barry Engber.

I never would have had that conversation if I hadn't been writing that tick story.

And if I hadn't figured this out, for all I know, my next burger could have Stay Pufted me to death.

Writing for the N&O just might have saved my life.

Who says that internships aren't valuable?

chappellh@gmail.com

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