Food allergies on the rise, becoming a 'public health problem'

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October 10, 2013, 9:15 am
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(NECN) - New data suggests that early introduction of highly allergenic foods-such as peanuts may reduce a child's risk for developing food allergies, according to new recommendations from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

The recommendations are a reversal of guidelines issued in 2000, which advised delaying introduction of peanuts and tree nuts until a child turned three years old.

That reversal also brings to light the many things doctors still don't know about a condition that has seen a 50-percent increase in the past 10 years.

Holly Moura has her dinnertime routine down to a science.

“They only eat what I tell them,” she says.

Moura’s youngest son, Samuel, is allergic to milk. Her oldest son, Alexander, is allergic to peanuts.

“It started when my dad had this trail mix that had peanut stuff in it…I just started coughing and it was also spicy…But then she gave me some medicine and it was a lot better.”

Having two sons with food allergies, Moura and her husband have had to alter their lifestyles. She always carries an epi-pen, eating out is rare and birthday parties are often challenging.

“Most of the time we bring our own food and our own dessert because I don't know what is served in the cake,” she says.

Alex is one of the 15 million people in the US with a food allergy.

It's estimated 1 in 13 kids under 18 has a food allergy and that equates to 2 kids in every average sized classroom.

“It's become a public health problem essentially, because if you have a couple kids in every classroom that are affected than really it affects us all,” says Dr. Wayne Shreffler, director of the food allergy center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

He says researchers are still trying to determine why certain foods, like peanuts, trigger the immune system into mistakenly thinking that particular food is a threat.

“Why the body does that and why to certain foods is not well understood.”

And while there's still no definitive treatment for peanut allergies, Dr. Shreffler says desensitization is the current focus. This involves giving children with peanut allergies increasing doses of peanut flour or peanut extract over time.

“Where that research stands now I think is fair to say is that it is very promising.”

Also promising is a new study where those allergic to peanuts wear a patch, containing a small amount of peanut allergen. Results aren't expected for another year.

“All of these trials, the idea is that by exposing a person in a safe way to the right dose of allergen, you can retrain the immune system away from an allergic response.”

As for a full out cure, that's still years away.

But Dr. Shreffler anticipates a vaccine like approach in the future, something Moura hopes happens sooner rather than later.

“I hope that they do find a treatment for it. I'm hoping that by the time my oldest one gets to maybe high school, which isn't that far away, we're hoping there will be some kind of treatment for it.”

As of now, the only way to prevent an allergic reaction to peanuts is to avoid the product altogether.

In recent years, many schools have implemented a ban on peanut products in classrooms and there has been a surge of warnings on food packaging.

Also, there is market out there now for temporary tattoos aimed to notify people that someone has a food allergy.

Tags: Massachusetts General Hospital, food allergies, peanut allergies, dr. wayne shreffler, holly moura, american academy of allergy asthma and immunology
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