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Apr. 07, 2009

A New Hope for Peanut Allergy Sufferers

by Science Friday Education

By Caitlin Militello

On March 15, MSNBC had some surprising news about peanut allergies. Thanks to a new treatment by Duke University Medical Center and the Arkansas Children's Hospital, 29 children were able to eat peanuts without any allergic reactions. The treatment is called oral desensitization, a method of gradually introducing a food allergen orally in order to build up immune system tolerance.

Though further study is still necessary, 5 of those 29 children appear to have had their peanut allergies completely cured. This isn’t just good news for the 1.8 million peanut allergy sufferers in the U.S.-- it could change their lives. Every year, 200 people die in the U.S. because of peanut allergies, and another 30,000 make emergency visits to the hospital.

According to the MedlinePlus Encyclopedia, many people have food intolerances (lactose intolerance, for example, is a condition in which a person cannot drink milk or consume dairy products, but does not have an actual allergy). Food allergies, however, are much less common, and cause the production of antihistamines and antibodies in response to the allergen, much like seasonal allergies or hay fever. Because many people have severe peanut allergies which can result in anaphylaxis, the peanut is high on the list of the most dangerous allergens.

There are many statistics on food allergies, but, according to the FDA, 1.5%, or 4 million Americans have them, with 1 to 2 percent, or 1.5 million food allergy-sufferers in Japan, according to figures from the Japanese National Diet Library.

For many years, people with run-of-the-mill, non-food allergies could take antihistamines or allergy shots for relief, but people with the often terrible peanut allergy had no recourse. With this new treatment, peanut allergy patients are given small amounts of the allergen, much like with allergy shots, gradually increasing the dose as his or her tolerance builds. The result is that children who could not eat peanuts before are now able to do so to some degree, without any adverse reactions.

Peanut oral desensitization is different from allergy shots, however. Allergy shots are injected into the arm, while oral desensitization patients eat small doses—starting with amounts smaller than a person could cut by hand, or powders—of peanut every day. Furthermore, unlike allergy shots, which carry only a possibility of increased allergen tolerance, oral desensitization carries a hope of actually curing the peanut allergy.

There are still a few caveats: this method can only be administered by a doctor, and is still dangerous for those with peanut allergies. Doctors should continue to search for a safer method that can be used by everyone, but that will take time.

However, as the head of the allergy department at the Duke University Medical Center said, “We’re optimistic that [the children who have undergone oral desensitization] have lost their peanut allergy.” So, for the time being, if you think of peanut allergies, think like the doctors at Duke: optimistically.

Read more: The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network: Tips for Managing a Peanut Allergy and FAQs

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