‘Alpha-gal’ — a hunter’s nightmare disease
The disease first revealed itself after a meal of beef enchiladas.
Only 30 minutes after his first bite, John Hill was struck with sweats, severe abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea and more. He thought it was food poisoning. It wasn’t.
Instead it was the first of many violent allergic reactions that would start Hill on a months-long journey of discovery and to his ultimate diagnoses of having contracted “alpha-gal.”
The story of how a lifelong cattle rancher and big game hunter contracted a disease that turned him ill after exposure to mammalian meat began on Feb. 28. Hill and friends took advantage of the last day of extended doe season on Hill’s FE Hill Ranch near Fairfield.
The next morning, Hill discovered a tick on the back of his leg. He removed it with a pair of tweezers, threw it in the trash and continued to the shower without giving it another thought. As a rancher and hunter, he got ticks on him all the time.
“About 10 days later, I had some Mexican food and within about 30 minutes I got sick,” Hill recalled. “I didn’t think it would be something that I had just eaten, of course, because that would be really quick for food poisoning to hit. But I mean I vomited, and after about four hours it just went away.”
Hill found the quick disappearance of his suffering odd. He’d never rebounded from a stomach bug or case of food poisoning so quickly. Nor had he ever had such an appetite on the tail end of suffering from such ailments.
Hill put it out of mind and continued on his day. He ate a big breakfast and put in a day’s work. That afternoon he broke for lunch at Subway and quickly scarfed down an Italian sub.
He was sick as a dog within the hour. And he was fine just hours after.
“I’m beginning to wonder now if I’ve developed some kind of food allergy. Maybe some kind of food sensitivity,” Hill explains. “The next morning, I ate pancakes and had a little bit of oatmeal and some fruit. But I ate some sausage.”
Again, Hill got sick within an hour.
“I realized the common denominator was that I’d gotten sick after eating red meat or pork,” Hill said. “I was like, well this is crazy. I’ve been eating this all my life — I’m a rancher and I eat a ton of venison.”
Hill took three days off of red meat and pork. He ate no meat but chicken and turkey and experienced no suffering. Thinking that his symptoms had passed, he reintroduced ham into his diet.
“I’m thinking, okay, I’ve got a meat allergy. Something is definitely going wrong here,” he said.
Hill took his concern to his physician who immediately believed Hill’s gallbladder was to blame. His doctor ordered a battery of tests to prove his suspicion but they showed nothing wrong.
Hill’s doctor ordered a CT scan of his liver, spleen and pancreas. Again, nothing wrong.
His doctor cleared him to go on a hunting trip in Spain. “He’s like, when you get to Spain, just stay on chicken and seafood. Don’t touch anything that’s beef or pork or any venison or anything. I was, like, okay, cool.”
Three days before Hill was to leave for Spain, his outfitter Scott Kendricks of Global Pursuit emailed Hill a story about “alpha-gal,” a disease that sounded a lot like what Hill was dealing with.
“The further I kept reading about it, I was like, oh my gosh. This is it.”
Hill’s doctors disagreed.
Upon Hill’s return from Spain he met with the growing number of specialists he’d been dealing with and asked them if they thought he might have alpha-gal. None of Hill’s doctors had heard of the disease. Nor did they want to learn about it.
Hill took his concerns elsewhere and after a battery of phone calls, he found an allergy specialist in Waco.
“She [the specialist] calls me five days later and said the level of alpha-gal in your body right now is so high, your white blood cell count is off the charts right now and that’s not good. She asked for my pharmacy and said, ‘You’re gonna have two EpiPens waiting on you in 10 minutes.’”
Hill realized very quickly the serious nature of his ailment and how his life would never be the same.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Alpha-gal syndrome is a recently identified type of food allergy to red meat. In the U.S., the condition most often begins when a Lone Star tick bite transmits a sugar molecule called alpha-gal into the body. In some people, this triggers an immune system reaction that later produces mild to severe allergic reactions when they eat red meat.”
Hill has come to accept his alpha-gal diagnosis and with the help of a nutritionist has come to terms with a life without red meat of any kind. He’s lost weight on his new diet and keeps up on any and all breakthroughs in the disease.
“The problem is, there’s not a whole lot of information out there about it because the CDC has not accepted and recognized it as a disease yet,” Hill said. “The awareness of it is getting out there because more people are starting to get it. That means, it could be the Lone Star tick, it could be other ticks that are doing this.”
Hill cautions all his hunting clients to bathe their clothing in Permethrin or other tick detouring pesticides before heading afield and to check themselves after time spent outside.
Not one is sure if alpha-gal is something that can be cured or if the allergy is something that one can outgrow.
This was a hard realization for Hill to accept but one that he has no choice but to deal with.
Gayne C. Young is an avid outdoorsman and Fredericksburg resident.