On August 12, 2021, musician Ken McCullick tragically passed away in an emergency room after receiving a blood thinner called heparin, to which he had a deadly allergy. This allergy, known as alpha-gal syndrome, is caused by a sugar found in red meat and dairy products and is transmitted through the bite of a lone star tick. It affects up to 450,000 Americans but remains relatively unrecognized as a food allergy.

Diagnosing alpha-gal syndrome is challenging due to its delayed symptoms. A recent CDC study found that 42% of surveyed doctors and nurse practitioners were unaware of the allergy, and another third lacked confidence in managing it. McCullick experienced severe reactions, including anaphylaxis, as late as four to six hours after consuming red meat or dairy. His journey to diagnosis was difficult and involved repeated emergency room visits. Recent testing data suggests that there may have been as many as 450,000 cases of alpha-gal syndrome in the US since 2010. The prevalence of the syndrome is concentrated in states with lone star ticks, particularly in the South, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic regions. McCullick’s case emphasizes the need for greater awareness about alpha-gal syndrome among healthcare providers and the general public to prevent tragedies and save lives.