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Yarmouth businessman shares story of suspected lone star tick bite reaction

Tony Papadogiorgakis at his new restaurant – 468 on Main Street, Yarmouth.
Tony Papadogiorgakis at his new restaurant – 468 on Main Street, Yarmouth.

Red meat allergy symptoms became successively worse

YARMOUTH, N.S. - When Tony Papadogiorgakis’s daughter Artemis told him she saw a tick crawling up his chest as they were driving to the Annapolis Valley from Arcadia, Yarmouth County, in April 2017, he quickly yanked it off to look at it.

He had suffered through the symptoms of Lyme disease previously and wanted to make sure it wasn’t a blacklegged tick, a known carrier of the disease.

Nope.

This one was brown with a white dot on its back. Phew, safe, he thought as he squished it between his fingers and threw it out the window.

A week later he visited his family doctor because his chest had two angry-looking, large red infections in two spots.

After examining him, his doctor eased his concerns that it might be a re-infection of Lyme disease (it’s possible to be infected twice).

At that time, there wasn’t much information circulating about the lone star tick, the bite of which can cause an allergy to red meat in its host. Papadogiorgakis would learn much more about the insect in the months to come thanks, in part, to his own research.

His doctor told him to monitor the possible bite sites and his symptoms.  Papadogiorgakis put aloe vera on the wounds and the infection subsided.

About a month later, he had a burger at a fast-food restaurant and experienced what he thought was a mild case of food poisoning.

In the time that followed he had two more burgers, each a month apart. Each time, he had a more severe allergic reaction.

He went to a pharmacist, who recommended one antihistamine pill for each allergic reaction.

After eating a fourth burger he had such an uncomfortable reaction he had to take two pills.

He ate his fifth burger at a friend’s barbecue on July 23. Half an hour after eating it he knew he was in trouble. He drove home to take two Benadryl.

“I planned on allowing myself 15 to 20 minutes to see if they would make a difference,” he said.

“In 10 minutes I knew I was way beyond those and I had better get myself to the hospital quick.”

He says he felt like his body was in toxic shock syndrome. His heart beat was extremely high, his skin was extremely itchy and he was swelling up. His tongue was getting thicker and his eyelids were turning red and closing up. By the time he made it to the hospital he says his allergic symptoms were full blown.

“The only doctor there on call was looking after two heart cases. I’m sitting down, perspiring profusely. It feels like I have two hammers trying to exit my head. I checked my heartrate and it was 180. Normally it’s 65. I thought I’m going to pass out and by the time the doctor gets here it will be too late.”

He saw a bin full of papers in the corner and ran to it and vomited. Inadvertently that moved his admission to the front.

He was hooked up to receive drugs intravenously and received epinephrine. The doctor on call prescribed an EpiPen upon his departure.

A few days later a friend’s daughter contacted him. She had been reading about the lone star tick and suggested he may have been bitten by one.

“Sure enough, it was bang on, everything,” he said, referring to the symptoms.

He went back to his family doctor and was sent to the Infectious Disease Clinic in Kentville, run by Melanie DiQuinzio, where it was determined that he did not have Lyme disease but definitely had an allergic reaction to something. There he learned even more about the lone star tick – that its saliva contains a substance that enters the host’s blood stream and interferes with the digestion of hemoglobin.

“When the hemoglobin reacts with the sugars of the digestive system the presence of this substance creates alpha gal,” said Papadogiorgakis.

“By the time I had the test in December, it showed a medium allergy to pork and beef. It didn’t show such a high allergy to warrant an expensive test for lone star tick bite infection, which costs a lot of money,” he said.

He returned back to Yarmouth to prepare for the opening of his new grill/steak house – 468.

On March 4 he was busily preparing for the arrival of friends for a “soft” opening and jam night.

Tony Papadogiorgakis at his new restaurant – 468 on Main Street, Yarmouth.
Tony Papadogiorgakis at his new restaurant – 468 on Main Street, Yarmouth.

He’s worked three years renovating the building, repurposing saved woodwork, stones, doors and stained glass from two churches.

He says jokingly that, for a while, he was beginning to think that maybe his allergy happened because he used church materials and had fun doing it. “Maybe there’s a God who thought ‘I’ll show you,’” he laughed.

As soon as guests arrived, compliments began filling the beautiful space.

Papadogiorgakis wanted everything to be perfect.

“I’m cooking for the first time for the public and we’re doing Greek meatballs and roast pork and I’m in the kitchen,” he said.

“I forgot all about it (his allergy). I’m tasting this and tasting that and after four hours I thought, Hey, I ate red meat and I’m okay! I was ecstatic.”

He says it was his good luck that over time he “got rid of the alpha gala in my blood.”

“Some people recover in six months or so, others hold it for a lifetime,” he said.

Dr. L. Robbin Lindsay, a research scientist in Winnipeg that specializes in tick-borne pathogens, says the lone star tick is seen only very occasionally in Canada on people without a history of travel to areas where this tick exists in the southern parts of the United States.  

“This species does feed occasionally on migratory birds so it is at least theoretically possible that Tony was exposed to a lone star tick bite while in Nova Scotia,” he said.

“I have read about the allergic reactions associated with red meat allergies from lone star tick bites and I think the severity and speed of the sensitivity does vary from person to person.  I have also read that certain people can ‘overcome’ the reaction over time, but I am not sure if Tony’s scenario is typical or not,” he said.

Museum of Natural History zoology curator Andrew Hebda says that since he’s been employed at the museum he’s seen six lone star tick specimens and that they all came from people with a history of having travelled to the southern U.S.

“We had a couple of reports from people saying they had seen them in the province but once officials followed up on them they were other species,” he said.

To confirm the establishment of a tick species, officials look for adults of both sexes, nymphs, larvae – all present would show a good chance of establishment.

“All they (researchers) have seen are single adults. To our best knowledge the answer is no (the lone star tick is not in Nova Scotia), but ticks can’t read,” he said.

Papadogiorgakis still wonders where his tick might have originated. His daughter was visiting him from Virginia, but he also says perhaps it arrived on a person or pet from Maine via the ferry between Yarmouth and Portland.

He’s just grateful he no longer has an allergic reaction after eating meat.

“I’m cured. It makes me appreciate things,” he said.

A lone star female tick image submitted to research scientist Dr. L. Robbin Lindsay from Ontario in 2013.
A lone star female tick image submitted to research scientist Dr. L. Robbin Lindsay from Ontario in 2013.

More about the lone star tick

For more information about the lone star tick, visit the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation website

If you find an unusual tick, try to capture it and send it via mail or email an image to

Museum of Natural History 1747 Summer Street,

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Canada B3H 3A6

Att: Andrew Hebda, Zoology Curator

museum@novascotia.ca

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