Arkansas woman develops 'deadly' meat allergy after tick bite

Jennifer Burton's 2-acre property is surrounded by woods, so the Arkansas resident is used to getting a few tick bites here and there. She's constantly in her yard gardening, feeding chickens or tending to her fruit trees and berry vines.

"I get bitten by ticks every year in my backyard," Burton, of Rogers, told Fox News on Thursday. "All of us who grew up in this area are used to ticks. You take it off, toss it and think, 'It's a tick — it's not a big deal.'"

But Burton soon found out it was a big deal: a tick bite nearly took her life.

"I shouldn't have survived. That was a big eye opener for me."

— Jennifer Burton

For months, Burton suffered allergic reactions. At first, she just got hives, rashes and some swelling. But her symptoms eventually became more serious. She began vomitting, had diarrhea and went into anaphylactic shock.

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"The last one I should have died. I shouldn't have survived," Burton said as she recalled her fourth anaphylactic episode. "That was a big eye opener for me."

Burton then visited a general practitioner who ran food allergy screenings on her to determine the root of her problem. One test, in particular, came back positive: beef.

Confused, Burton replied, "I've been eating beef all my life."

The doctor referred her to specialist Dr. Tina Meritt, an allergist-immunologist in the area, who diagnosed her with alpha-gal syndrome, also known as the "red meat allergy" caused by tick bites, in April 2017.

"I know you have [alpha-gal]. I have it, too," Meritt told Burton, explaining that she got bitten by a tick at a Girl Scout camp sometime between third and fourth grade.

On one hand, Meritt's diagnosis was a "blessing," Burton said but it was also devastating to hear. Meat is a large part of her diet. She put her son through culinary school years ago and encourages her family to eat fresh food.

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"This was a whole new lifestyle," Burton said, admitting she felt depressed when she first learned she had the allergy. "It's not just beef and pork."

As Meritt points out on the Allergy & Asthma Clinic of Northwest Arkansas' website, the alpha-gal allergy extends to beef, pork, gelatin and products that contain mammalian ingrediants.

"That includes dairy products," Burton said. "Mammal biproducts are in everything — daily vitamin supplements, shampoo, conditioners, hand and body lotions ... all those things were keeping my system agitated. Pork or beef would just put it over the edge."

A lot of vaccines are either made with animal products or have gelatin in it.

"Although synthetic media have been developed for growth of many medically important microorganisms, some still require additional nutrients which are easily provided by animal-derived products such as serum and blood," the U.S. Food and Drug Administration explains in a post online. "Viral vaccines are produced in living cells, which, similarly, require the addition of complex growth media components, such as fetal calf serum."

It's hard to find the right medicine to treat various illnesses if a person has alpha-gal. That's why a diagnosis is crucial, Burton said.

To alleviate her symptoms and avoid any other life-threatening episodes, Burton said she limits her diet and uses vegan supplements, medications and personal care products.

"Since there is no cure, avoiding being bitten is paramount. Prevention is key."

— Jennifer Burton

"With shampoos, mascaras ... I had no idea it was so life-altering," Burton said. "I remember crying and being so angry when people said, 'Too bad, you're going to miss out on weekend barbecues.' You don't get the severity of it — it can be quite deadly."

And alpha-gal isn't the only tick-related illness you should be concerned about this summer.

The number of illnesses caused by infected mosquitoes, ticks or fleas tripled from 2004 through 2016, according to a report released by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday. On average, 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to the health agency each year.

Now Burton is doing everything she can to raise awareness for alpha-gal and other tick-borne illnesses, encouraging everyone to wear tick repellent and wash your clothes in hot water immediately after you visit a wooded area.

"That's part of my mission: community awareness," she added. "Since there is no cure, avoiding being bitten is paramount. Prevention is key."