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John Kass: Illness threatens the best of barbecuers


By John Kass

This could be a terrifying tale right out of the Book of Meat Science Fiction, only this one isn't fiction.

It involves the elemental bond between humans and the critters we like to cook on a grill, or roast, or saute.

But that could all end, because a tiny bloodthirsty bug known as the lone star tick carries something that can trigger a rare and mysterious meat allergy. And that allergy can cause carnivores to become violently ill when they come in contact with red meat.

Symptoms include stuff I refuse to type because if I do, I'll get sick just typing it. It's not deadly, but it does involve digestive functions and hives. I will say no more.

Except that Americans love red meat of all kinds. We're the kings of the best steakhouses, rib joints, burger palaces and butcher shops in the world. Beef is the American Way, unless you're of that militant vegetarian persuasion.

And this meat allergy could bring our way of life crashing down. There's no name for it, so I decided to give it one:

Kreatomiasma, or literally, the meat sickness.

"You're just trying to scare people with your fancy Greek scientific jargon," said my friend Mick, who loves meat as much as the next guy. "Kreatomiasma? You can't be serious."

Oh, but my friend Mick, I am serious.

Doctors have known of the relationship between the evil lone star tick and red meat for some time. Kreatomiasma doesn't strike seafood or poultry eaters. And if you're partial to reptile meat, snakes and gators and such, or insects, you can still enjoy your favorite meal, even road kill.

But if you enjoy meat from warm-blooded creatures and you get the bug, you might as well just sit down in a ditch, get drunk, read a Gene & Georgetti menu and wait to die.

It all became public with the story of a Durham, N.C., woman with the normal-sounding name of Clare Smith.

Clare was once a happy meat eater. She was bitten, became ill and didn't know why. And now she might as well be Clare Patient Zero in the fight against Kreatomiasma.

We interviewed Dr. Ves Dimov, of the University of Chicago, an internationally known expert who serves at the World Allergy Organization and has been tracking the meat illness.

"The allergy can appear at any time," he said. "We know what causes it and we can find out if the person is allergic or not, but we can't really predict who's going to develop allergies and how exactly it starts."

Again and for the umpteenth dang time, let me repeat that not everyone who is bitten by the tick will develop the meat allergy. It is an extremely rare malady.

But there is no cure.

As some of you know, I'm a committed, perhaps obsessive barbecuer. I collect grills the way some elderly women poets collect cats and hats with plumes. So when I heard the no-cure part, I felt like rushing home and hugging my Weber kettles.

And if you'd like to give your butcher an unscientific case of the heebie-jeebies, send him a YouTube link to the commentary of Dr. Susan E. Wolver of Virginia Commonwealth University.

She, too, addresses the meat bug. And she uses a horrifying phrase I just can't get out of my mind: mammalian meat.

"People who actually develop this allergy, current guidance is actually that they avoid mammalian meat altogether," Dr. Wolver said. "Beef, pork, lamb and venison. That's very distasteful for my patient who loves his steak."

She added that there is no treatment, no cure.

"There is no desensitization currently for patients who have the meat allergy."

No cure for Kreatomiasma?

Then what the heck are you scientists good for anyway?

The last thing I'd do is accuse all the scientists of being in the pockets of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or the soybean industry, since that would be irresponsible journalism. But whenever mysterious illness occurs that could really ruin your weekend, you've got to ask yourself: Who benefits?

Unfortunately, the story just gets worse.

The lone star tick isn't exclusive to Texas. It latches onto critters of all kinds, some four-legged, some two, and the bloodsuckers migrate. Now, they're in Illinois.

That's correct. They're here in the Midwest. Most of them can be found in central and southern Illinois, but state officials report that recently some have been found not too far from Chicago.

The Illinois Department of Public Heath notes through spokeswoman Shelia Porter that the lone star tick "has been increasing its range northward over the past 10 years. However, from what we know (through limited data) is that it is present in northeastern Illinois, but only in low numbers. ... The tick can be very common locally in the southern two-thirds of Illinois."

Chris Young, a spokesman for the state's Department of Natural Resources, is a hiker who has encountered the Kreatomiasmic tick near Springfield.

"I found one Sunday during a woodland hike," he reported.

Then he went into the whole how-to-protect-yourself-from-ticks routine you've seen on TV, with hikers tucking their pants legs into their socks and wearing hats and long sleeves and using repellents with DEET.

The ticks are almost upon us. There is no cure. So there's only one thing to do.

Get thee to a steakhouse.

Email: jskass@tribune.com


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