Becoming allergic to meat turns your life upside down. Known as alpha-gal allergy, the condition dictates what you can eat, wear, how you relax, and even which medicines are safe. Is research finally starting to catch up?
McGraw is allergic to the meat of mammals and everything else that comes from them: dairy products, wool and fibre, gelatine from their hooves, char from their bones. This syndrome affects some thousands of people in the USA and an uncertain but likely larger number worldwide, and after a decade of research, scientists have begun to understand what causes it. It is created by the bite of a tick, picked up on a hike or brushed against in a garden, or hitchhiking on the fur of a pet that was roaming outside.
The illness, which generally goes by the name ‘alpha-gal allergy’ after the component of meat that triggers it, is a trial that McGraw and her family are still learning to cope with. In much the same way, medicine is grappling with it too. Allergies occur when our immune systems perceive something that ought to be familiar as foreign. For scientists, alpha-gal is forcing a remapping of basic tenets of immunology: how allergies occur, how they are triggered, whom they put in danger and when.
For those affected, alpha-gal is transforming the landscapes they live in, turning the reliable comforts of home – the plants in their gardens, the food on their plates — into an uncertain terrain of risk.