After a number of hospitalisations and tests, Rene Morcom finally found out that a tick bite had made her allergic to meat

After reading about how five-year-old Kailyn Griffin was paralysed after being bitten by a tick (5-year-old’s sudden paralysis caused by tick), Rene Morcom (33) was moved to share her tick-bite story with All4women.

Morcom, who lives in Pietermaritzburg, suffers from alpha-gal. Also known as ‘meat allergy’ or ‘mammalian meat allergy’ (MMA), the disease is often the result of a tick bite.

She says having alpha-gal means you can have a deadly allergic reaction to animal meat and anything containing mammal products, like some make-up, medication, soap and even marshmallows.

How it started

“It felt like hot lava was flowing under my skin… By the time we got to the emergency room my chest was closing, my face and neck were swollen and I could not breathe”

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On 17 January 2016, after eating homemade steak and kidney pie for dinner, Morcom noticed an itchy dot on her rib cage which soon became three.

Since she was playing on the floor with her baby, she asked her husband to remove the rug as she thought there was something on it biting her.

The itch started to spread all over her body and then it started to burn. “It felt like hot lava was flowing under my skin, and throughout my entire body.”

They rushed to the emergency room, with Morcom screaming all the way in pain.

“By the time we got to the emergency room my chest was closing, my face and neck were swollen and I could not breathe.”

The doctors couldn’t work it out

She was treated for anaphylaxis and spent two nights in the hospital.

“The doctor ran a few basic food allergy tests all coming back negative. I was prescribed an EpiPen, which I could not afford so I used an ampule of adrenaline and a needle instead.”

Two weeks later she had a similar reaction after a family BBQ and stayed in the hospital for four days while the tests for allergies and autoimmune diseases were run. “Again, all my tests came back clear.”

After a number of hospitalisations and tests, Rene Morcom finally found out that a tick bite had made her allergic to meat
After a number of hospitalisations and tests, Rene Morcom finally found out that a tick bite had made her allergic to meat

Living in fear

Morcom had in total six major anaphylaxis reactions from January to August, and many mild reactions in between. “With each of the six major reactions I was hospitalised for four days and the doctor ran many tests to try and determine the cause.”

She says she lived in fear and did not want to eat because she didn’t know if it was food or a disease that was causing the reactions.

Desperate for answers, I turned to Google

“In August 2016, I had lost hope in my medical team and was desperate for answers. Whilst lying on my hospital bed, I turned to Google.”

This is when she came across alpha-gal, but all the research she read stated that this tick was either in the USA or Australia and not in South Africa.

When she shared her suspicion with her husband and doctor, she says they seemed to think she had gone crazy.

“My doctor had never heard of alpha-gal and I had to read something from Wikipedia to him.”

Despite her family and doctor disregarding her self-diagnosis, she insisted on getting tested, even if it meant sending her blood to the USA.

“We eventually a lab in South Africa that did the alpha-gal test. It was the longest three days of my life waiting for the test results… it came back positive for alpha-gal.”

Related: Beware of tick-borne diseases

I felt so alone

Although she expected to feel empowered by a diagnosis and now knowing what to avoid, Morcom spiralled into depression. “I felt so alone, there were no people like me in South Africa.”

To make matters worse, medical professionals didn’t believe her.

“I have had doctors ignore me and try to treat me intentionally with medication containing mammal because they simply never heard of alpha-gal and did not care to listen to me.”

Finding alpha-gal support on Facebook

Morcom says her saving grace was finding an Alpha-Gal Facebook support group.

“I was welcomed in, cared for, guided and the members taught me how to live, as well as how to come to terms with the cards dealt to me.”

However, she still needed to consult with a doctor who knew what alpha-gal was. A year after her first reaction, she decided to go to the USA to see Dr Scott Commins an allergist and researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who specialises in food allergies.

Since Morcom runs a foster home and doesn’t earn an income, she raised the money to go through a crowdfunding page.

“Within a few weeks, friends, family and people I had never met donated to my cause and I was able to cover my airfare to go.”

In April 2017, Morcom met with Dr Commins. He guided her on how to live with alpha-gal, what medications to take, and developed an action plan on what to do in the case of a bad reaction.

While in the US, she was able to stay with many other patients who had alpha-gal. She says this was not only a great learning curve, but she also formed new amazing friendships.

Since her diagnosis, Morcom says her seven-year-old daughter, Thandi, and 12-year old son, Joshua, developed alpha-gal.

Family affected too

Since her diagnosis, Morcom says her seven-year-old daughter, 12-year old son and husband have all developed alpha-gal.

“My daughter had her first reaction on 16 January 2018. She developed hives and could not breathe. Thankfully, my husband was at home, immediately recognised the symptoms as anaphylaxis and raced her to the emergency room.”

She says that they now try their hardest to keep their home alpha-gal safe for all their children – biological and foster children – as a precaution.

For more information on alpha-gal, you can visit Morcom’s website www.alphagal.co.za

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.