Researchers in Cambridge, England, believe that they have uncovered a successful, long-term cure for the peanut allergy. As they embark on the largest clinical trial of its kind in the world, they predict a treatment for this and other potentially life-threatening food allergies in as little as three years.
For lots of us, this is important news.
There are plenty of things you don't bargain for when you become a parent: just how little sleep you'll actually get that first year (five years?
), just how inarticulate
you'll be the first time your kid asks you where babies come from (Um . . . that's a really good question
) and -- oh, yeah -- the fact that you'll never go to a movie theater again (Hello, Netflix!
I kind of knew all of those things were on the horizon. One thing I didn't see coming was that my son would also arrive into this world allergic to more than 20 different foods, some of which could kill him.
He's not alone. According to a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
, 3 million U.S. children have food or digestive allergies, affecting nearly 5 percent of all children under 5. That's a rise of 18 percent between 1997 and 2007. Food allergy is responsible for the majority of anaphylactic shock (severe breathing difficulty) in children and has increased by 20 percent in Western countries
in the past 10 years.
And it isn't just children. In the United Kingdom, where I live, for example, the number of adults
developing potentially lethal new allergies for the first time has also accelerated dramatically. According to National Health Service (NHS) figures, the number of emergency adrenaline injectors (EpiPens) issued by doctors to combat severe allergies rose by 112 percent in 2008 alone, coupled with a stark rise in hospital admissions for allergy-related anaphylaxis.
Still, the allergy that everyone worries about most remains the dreaded peanut allergy. And that's for two reasons. First, it is by far the most lethal
of all food allergies. It is estimated that 1.5 million Americans have peanut allergies and that hospital emergency departments treat about 30,000 cases of food-related allergic anaphylaxis per year. Peanuts are responsible for about 160 deaths annually in the United States -- roughly 80 percent of all food allergy fatalities. In the past 10 years, peanut sensitivity on a standard skin prick test has increased by 55 percent, while allergic reactions increased by 95 percent.
The second reason that peanut allergies provoke so much anxiety among people who suffer from them (or who have children who do) is that -- unlike other allergens -- peanut particles can travel by air. While research
suggests that it's actually quite rare to go into anaphylaxis merely from inhaling peanut products, it isn't uncommon for people to develop allergic symptoms, like a runny nose or itchy, watery eyes, in the presence of a peanut. (Which is why, if you're ever seated next to my son on an airplane and you like eating peanuts, you might find me to be an annoying neighbor.)
So it's a tremendous relief to learn about the aforementioned study
in Britain, which holds out the hope that all of this may soon be behind us. What's distinctive about this study is that it combated the allergy through "desensitization therapy," in which children are exposed to the allergen in question in small increments over time, rather than avoiding it altogether (what my son has been doing for nine years). An earlier, similar attempt at desensitization therapy in the 1990s used injections of peanut oil and resulted in several severe reactions among participants. This time, the peanuts were ingested in the form of peanut flour, and 21 out of 23 children tolerated them without experiencing allergic reactions. (A similar trial was conducted at Duke University
last year, with similar results.)
Because of this success, the NHS has awarded the research team behind this study 1 million pounds to test it on a far larger group of children (104) over the next three years. If those trials exhibit the same success rate, the next step would be to roll out this approach clinically across the country. According to Dr. Andrew Clark at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, who led the investigation, "This may be the beginning of the end" for all food allergies.
The study is good news for everyone, but particularly those of us who've had to organize our lives around managing food allergies. I've been doing this for so long that it's become second nature. We carry two EpiPens and a bottle of Benadryl everywhere we go. We inquire extensively at restaurants before my son eats anything (which has enabled us to learn some interesting facts along the way, like that the default cooking oil in France is often peanut, not vegetable. Who knew?) Finally, I practically live in the "Free From" section at British supermarkets (which I parachuted into after camping out in Whole Foods
for the first five years of my son's life).
Don't get me wrong. Carob Almond Rice Dream
ice cream isn't nearly as terrifying as it sounds. Still . . . the idea that I could send my child on a play date and not
have to e-mail the parents an extensive list of what they can serve for dinner beforehand? Boy, would I love to take that one off my to-do list.
But these developments are also good news for parents who don't have kids with allergies (a.k.a. the majority). In recent years the "peanut wars
" have gotten a lot of airtime, at least in the United States. Many schools have tried, with the best intentions, to impose nut-free zones, something that is both impractical
and possibly overkill
. (But which -- for obvious reasons -- I fully endorse.)
As for me? Coincidentally, my son is scheduled to go into the hospital next week for an all-day peanut allergy challenge, where he will slowly ingest incremental amounts of peanut over an eight-hour period under close supervision. His most recent tests indicate that he may have grown out of this particular allergy, but we can't know for sure until he actually ingests a peanut.
I, for one, am encouraged to know that in the event that the challenge doesn't work -- and he is still allergic -- there is hope for us yet.
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