Tick-bitten teen now allergic to meat

Alpha-gal allergy on rise in Cape Region
April 11, 2018

Jake Hunsicker of Lewes is one active teen. 

A three-sport athlete at Mariner Middle School, 14-year-old Jake hunts with twin brother Josh and father George in season. He’s set to join the Lewes Fire Department as a cadet member, and he even finds time to camp with his Boy Scout troop once a month. 

Over a year ago, he returned from one of these camping trips with a mild rash and hives on his face. Figuring it was poison oak, his parents gave him Benadryl, and it soon cleared up. 

But a September camping trip at Lums Pond State Park caused a more alarming reaction. 

“His scout leader called me and said he was covered with hives and blisters,” his mother Karen said. “They started on his forehead and traveled all the way to his toes, and he was itching and burning.”

“We were dumping water on his head because we thought he had chiggers,” Josh said.

The scout leader gave him Benadryl, which seemed to help, but Karen met him and Jake half-way in Dover to be safe.

“His face was beet-red; he felt numb and he was on fire. His throat was closing up, too; he couldn’t swallow,” Karen said. “I’m pretty conservative, not a run-to-the-ER kind of person, so I asked my sister who’s been a nurse for 30 years what to do, and she said take him to the ER right away.”

At Beebe Healthcare, the doctor dosed him with prednisone and sent him home with a prescription for steroids. 

“The doctor was sure it wasn’t caused by a plant like poison ivy or oak,” Karen said. “He said Jake ate something he was allergic to, but all he had that day was a cheeseburger and a cheesesteak, and he eats them all the time.” 

Karen took Jake to an allergist for a skin-prick test, which detected his allergy in minutes.

“They tested for every kind of food - dairy, eggs, peanuts, almonds. When they tested for beef and pork, his arm instantly turned blood-red and had welts. It itched and drove him nuts.” 

The allergist suggested a Lone Star Tick bite may have caused the reaction. Follow-up blood work at Beebe confirmed Jake is now allergic to all mammal meat as a result of a bite from a Lone Star Tick, a brown tick with a whitish dot on its back.

“Jake is my big beef-eater. He was devastated. It totally blew him away,” Karen said. “He shot his first deer this year, and he can’t even touch it.” 

“I cried while I was eating a box of donuts,” Jake admitted.

When it bites a person, the Lone Star Tick transfers the alpha-gal carbohydrate - not present in humans - to the victim’s bloodstream, where it builds up over time. Eventually the immune system releases antibodies to fight the foreign carbohydrate, triggering a reaction called the alpha-gal allergy.

Some people naturally recover from alpha-gal allergy within a few months or several years; others have it forever. Jake will return to his doctor for a check-up next month, but in the meantime, he can only eat meat from animals that fly or swim – or risk anaphylactic shock.

In the United States, Lone Star Ticks are typically found in southern and central states, but the alpha-gal allergy is becoming more common in the Cape Region.

“I started the trend,” Jake laughed.

So, the Hunsicker family adjusted.  

“It was a change of mind-set of what to buy and cook. We eat what Jake can eat: chicken, turkey, seafood. His sister and I do have a beef weekend when he’s away camping,” his mother said. “But I’ve gotten so I’d rather have a turkey burger.”

Any mammal meat leftovers are stored in the fridge with red tupperware lids. Epi-pens are within reach at home, school and the Boy Scouts. Hunting friends regularly stop by with duck or goose meat for Jake. The change in diet hasn’t affected his growth; Karen says he’s shot up several inches and gained even more pounds since the end of wrestling season.

Since mammal meat is present in other food products, Jake researched online to find out for himself what was safe to eat. 

“I can’t have jelly, jello, marshmallows, M&Ms or peeps, but I can eat Swedish fish,” he smiled. “And we are having a beef party when this gets out of my system!”

Editor’s note: Jake’s sister Sarah contributed to this article.