The trouble with ticks
Sarah Van Bree has been living with a severe tick allergy for the past eight years. "I was at a football game with work and we ate some meat pies," says the 39-year-old mum-of-two from Terrey Hills. "At lam, several hours after I'd eaten, I woke up feeling really awful. I stumbled into the bathroom feeling as if I was going to faint and I was struggling to breathe.
My partner rushed me to hospital where I was injected with adrenaline. It was absolutely terrifying." Shortly afterwards, Sarah had a pin prick allergy test and learned that she was suffering from what's now known to be Mammalian Meat Allergy (MMA) caused by a bite from the Australian Paralysis Tick - a tiny creature that's rife on the Northern Beaches. "I tested positive to beef, lamb and pork allergies - and I haven't eaten red meat since," says Sarah.
It's a condition Associate Professor Dr Sheryl Van Nunen is seeing more and more of. She's an allergy expert from the Department of Clinical Immunology and Allergy at Royal North Shore Hospital whose research led her to first make the connection between MMA and ticks.
"Tick allergies are so prevalent on the Northern Beaches because the warm, humid climate and bushland environment allows the Australian Paralysis Tick (Ixodes holocyclus) to thrive throughout its lifecycle," Dr Van Nunen explains. "It also has a particularly long hypostome or feeding tube which means it can inject more tick protein that causes the allergies in some humans when it bites. That combined with the outdoor lifestyle this populated region enjoys means that large numbers of us are in close contact with ticks, hence the increasing numbers of those affected by allergies." MMA isn't the only tick-related issue she sees in her rooms each day. "Ticks can cause local swelling, itching and a rash - typically fanning out from the bite site in a ring, anaphylaxis, infections - particularly the flu like 'tick typhus' and even paralysis in both animals and children," she explains. There is growing talk about the presence of the more complex Lyme's disease in Australia too - also thought to be related to a tick bite.
Sarah's far from the only beaches resident affected by a tick allergy. Dr Van Nunen says she's stopped counting diagnosed cases but estimates she sees at least 60 patients presenting with potential tick-related allergies each week. Frenchs Forest's Del Balment, 51, discovered he had MMA two years ago after a severe reaction to lamb. "The first time was after I'd eaten some lamb in a nut crust so I thought that reaction was a nut issue,' says the graphic designer. "The following week I ate BBQ chops and the same thing happened. Six hours after eating, I woke up covered in large, red, swollen hives and I felt like my throat was closing over. It was horrible."
It's an issue Pittwater MP Rob Stokes is all too aware of. He recently urged parliament to take action on what he calls 'tick toxicity', especially as the Northern Beaches has the highest prevalence of the paralysis tick in the world.
"Anaphylaxis from ticks is significant and growing among adults and children in my electorate," he says. "I have had the opportunity of meeting many people who have suffered some shocking meat allergies (for example) as a result of being bitten by ticks." Our furry friends suffer greatly too. "My electorate is a very pet loving community and my sister Dr Jennifer Wingham who works at the Mona Vale Veterinary Hospital told me that each year they treat 300 animals - almost one each day - for tick related illnesses and toxicity. It may seem like a small issue but it's having real effects on people."
Last year, Sarah experienced a very unexpected issue as a result of her allergy. "I had an operation and reacted very badly to the internal stitches which were derived from animal gut," she tells. "I'd discussed my allergy with my surgeon - but neither of us had considered that the stitches could be problematic." Del says he had a similar flare-up when he took a soft cold relief tablet. "The gelatin coating was derived from beef and that caused me to break out in severe hives," he says. Some sufferers also experience issues with dairy.
So how is an allergy like MMA passed on to humans?
"All mammals - except humans and apes have a carbohydrate called alpha-gal in the system," says Dr Van Nunen. "The tick bites an animal like a bandicoot - whose numbers have recovered recently and so they're more prevalent on the beaches - or a rat, possum, cat or dog. The alpha-gal is then transferred from the animal the tick bites to the human it bites via the tick's saliva. An allergic reaction occurs in some humans because their body recognises the alpha-gal as foreign body and so reacts to fight it off. In MMA, the reaction is delayed until the meat has been digested and the alpha-gal is released into the bloodstream."
And if you should find yourself with a tick? The advice is freeze don't tweeze! "We used to pry ticks off with a pair of fine tweezers, but when the tick's body is squeezed it injects more saliva - and potentially more allergen - into the bite site," says
Dr Van Nunen. Instead, she advises touching a blob of Lyclear cream on larvae or nymph or applying five squirts of a freezing agent like Wart-Off on an embedded adult tick. "If it's dead, it can't inject its saliva," she explains. Afterwards, gently brush the dead tick from the site.
Sarah says that while she'd love to be able to enjoy a roast dinner, she won't risk another life-threatening anaphylactic reaction - and is vigilant about protecting her family from tick bites too. "We keep the grass really short around our place and if we do go bushwalking, we use insect repellent and cover up. When I get home I check myself and the kids carefully for ticks - including if possible the almost invisible larvae 'seed' ticks."
Despite being early in a tick's lifecycle, they're still capable of inflicting an allergic reaction upon a victim. There's many a wonderful aspect to living on the beaches -but our natural environment comes with risks too. As we learn of the prevalence of tick allergies, it's worth remembering that it's not just our pets we need to be tick-aware over, it's us two-legged inhabitants too.