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The Morning Sun: Dr. Portnoy recognizes newly discovered allergy to beef, pork after a tick bite

Dr. Portnoy identified the Alpha-Gal allergy and was able to quickly diagnose and treat a patient

Carthage native Robert Downey, 65, would kill for a ribeye steak. Neosho High School Senior Kelsey Allen, 17, loves brisket. But neither Downey nor Allen dares touch the foods they love anymore because of a tick bite.

And yes they miss it.

"You don't think about it until you can't have a taco or a cheeseburger, you think oh man, I'd kill for just a ribeye steak," Downey said. "It makes a tremendous difference."

"Beef is a very hard thing to give up, especially when you lived off it your entire life," Allen added. "No more steak, no more brisket, no more barbecue."

Allen and Downey are two of a growing number of people in Southwest Missouri who have been diagnosed with the Alpha-Gal allergy, a food allergy only discovered less than a decade ago. 

In the case of the Alpha-Gal allergy, a tick bites a deer or cow or other kind of mammal, takes in the carbohydrate known as galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, or alpha-gal for short) and then bites a human.

A person with the Alpha-Gal allergy is allergic to all mammalian meat or products, including beef, pork, venison, bison meat, milk, and products with meat or dairy byproducts in them.

The result a delayed reaction - the person doesn't start to show symptoms of the allergy for weeks or months after the tick bite, and then when symptoms do start appearing, the hives or swelling might not start for up to 12 hours after the person has eaten the food he or she is allergic to.

The reaction can be severe, even fatal in a few cases.

Kelsey Allen, the Neosho High School senior, was sick for more than four years before she was diagnosed with the allergy last year. 

When she was 11 or 12, Kelsey started getting sick. It started out as hives, then she'd have nausea and stomach cramps, but these symptoms didn't show up until hours after she ate, so no one could make the connection to any specific thing she was eating.

"My doctor did think it was diet related," she said. "He had me going gluten free and dairy free, which of course going dairy free helped a little bit because dairy is one of the things I'm allergic to. But beef was not something he thought would be a problem for me."

Kelsey's doctor sent her to specialists in Springfield and Kansas City. She went to Children's Mercy where she underwent a colonoscopy, but nothing obvious was found.

After two trips to the emergency room, including one trip when she was going into anaphylactic shock, which is potentially fatal, her pediatrician sent her back to Children's Mercy to see an allergy specialist, Dr. Jay Portnoy.

"I walked in there and within five minutes of telling him what was wrong, he knew exactly that I had this brand new allergy they had discovered, called Alpha-Gal," Kelsey said. "He confirmed that with blood work and I knew two weeks later that this is what I had."

The diagnosis meant a complete lifestyle change for Kelsey and her family.

"We do not raise beef anymore. We've changed everything," her dad, Brian Allen, said. 


Read the full story via the The Morning Sun.

Learn more about The Children's Mercy Allergy, Asthma and Immunology department.