All over the developed world, food allergies in children are on the rise — and experts aren’t certain why.
Among the hypotheses:
1. Reduced sun exposure has lead to insufficient natural vitamin D production.
2. Environmental factors related to pollution and climate (food allergies are far more common in urban rather than rural areas).
3. Societal emphasis on “hyper hygiene” means less exposure to microbes, thus compromising the development of a youngsters’ immune systems.
In the U.S., a reported 1 in 13 children — some 7.7% — suffer from a food allergy compared to just 2% of adults.
In the U.K., there’s been a reported fivefold increase over the past 20 years in children suffering from food allergies.
Among the most common ones that have the most potential to create dire circumstances are peanuts, dairy, shellfish and sesame seeds (last year, two British teens died after eating peanuts and sesame seeds, respectively, and an Australian child died from an allergic reaction to a dairy product).
For the concerned parents of allergy-afflicted kids, no measure is too extreme to safeguard their children from these potential dangers. As The Palm Beach Post reported last month, a Palm Beach Gardens mother whose 6-year-old son has nut allergies took legal action in an attempt to get Gardens Park to stop selling peanuts so that her son could play safely in a T-ball league.
While this mother’s suit was unsuccessful, there may be good news on the horizon for parents whose kids also suffer from peanut allergies.
Last month, a report on NBC’s Today show detailed the success clinical researchers have had with developing a potential drug that treats a peanut allergy.
Essentially, it’s exposure therapy.
Participants were tested to determine how much peanut exposure created an anaphylactic reaction. Everyone’s tolerance is different.
For the sixth-grader profiled in the Today report, the amount was miniscule: just 1/80th of a peanut.
The six-month treatment protocol — which involves ingesting a proprietary “peanut powder” capsule developed by Aimmune Therapeutics — is designed to gradually increase the child’s tolerance level.
As Dr. Kari Nadeau, director of Stanford University’s allergy and asthma research center, explained on Today, “Maybe before you could react to a speck of peanut flour. By every day training your immune system to build its strength, you increase the threshold.”
Participants then maintain their increased tolerance by eating an actual peanut (or fraction every day.
The report noted that by the time the 500 or so participants (ages 4 to 17) in the Aimmune Therapeutics study completed the trial, around 80 percent were able to eat a peanut or more daily (the featured sixth-grader was up to two peanuts a day).
The success of this form of exposure treatment dovetails with the current recommendation of physicians worldwide that, in order to decrease a child’s vulnerability for having a peanut allergy, parents should begin exposing their infant to age-appropriate forms of peanut products when the baby is around six months old.
(Another company, DBV Technologies, has also tested, with good results, a skin patch version of the treatment.)
Keep in mind, though, the treatment will be expensive: Last year, Aimmune Therapeutics’ CEO said he figured that the first six months of the treatment would cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per month, and then between $300 and $400 per month after that.
But for youngsters with severe peanut allergies, this treatment can transform how they live their daily lives.
As the sixth-grader told Today, “Now, I don't have to wipe everything down. I can just go in a door without having to wipe it down. I can sit at tables. I can eat at restaurants and fly on planes.”