About 3 percent of kids in Western countries are allergic to peanuts. But new research reveals promising new ways to prevent and treat the common food allergy. (Photo: Stocksy/David Smart)
Over the past decade, the number of children with peanut allergies has doubled in Europe and the United States. And peanut allergy is now the leading cause of food allergy-related death. But new research suggests a novel therapy to prevent high-risk children from developing peanut allergies — and it involves feeding them peanuts.
According to the study, published Monday in the New England Journal of Medicine, being fed peanut-containing snacks in early childhood is associated with a significantly lower risk of being allergic to peanuts at age 5.
The study involved 640 infants who were enrolled in the study at age 4 to 11 months. All of them had egg allergy or eczema — traits that raise the risk of peanut allergy. The young subjects underwent a skin prick test and food challenge test to determine their sensitivity to peanut protein. (For safety, the seven children who had a severe reaction to eating peanuts during the food challenge tests were told to avoid peanuts.)
The rest of the subjects were then randomized into two groups. One group avoided peanuts through 5 years of age. The other group ate snacks that contained approximately 2 grams of peanut protein (the equivalent of about eight peanuts) three times per week.
When the children reached age 5, the researchers repeated the skin prick test to check for peanut allergy. Among children who showed some peanut sensitivity early on — that is, those who had a significant reaction to the first skin prick test when they were infants — 10.6 percent of those who ate peanut snacks tested positive. In comparison, 35.3 percent of the peanut-avoiding children tested positive for peanut allergy.
The results were similar among high-risk children whose skin-prick test initially came back negative. Only about 2 percent of the kids who ate peanuts eventually developed a peanut allergy, according to their skin test at age 5. But nearly 14 percent of those who avoided peanuts developed an allergy.
“This intervention was safe, tolerable, and highly efficacious,” the study authors write. Overall, peanut consumption was associated with a 70 to 86 percent lower risk of peanut allergy.
Some experts believe that consistently exposing infants and small children to a potential allergen may prevent allergies from developing, Selina Gierer, DO, a pediatric allergist at The University of Kansas Hospital, tells Yahoo Health. An infant may be exposed in utero or during breastfeeding if the mother eats peanuts, but there is often a lapse in exposure since babies cannot chew well, she says. Then when a toddler is reintroduced to peanut-containing snacks, there is a chance that he or she will go on to develop an allergy. “If a mother ingests peanuts during pregnancy and breastfeeding and then introduces peanut into the diet early on, there is no lapse that potentially allows for the development of the allergy,” Gierer explains.
Previous research suggests that egg and milk allergies may be avoided by feeding infants small amounts of the foods. In one study, children who were allergic to eggs but could handle baked eggs incorporated the latter into their diets. Compared to subjects who avoided eggs, those fed baked eggs were more than 14 times more likely to develop a tolerance to regular eggs, the study found.
In an accompanying editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, Rebecca Gruchalla, MD, PhD, from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, and Hugh Sampson, MD, from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, say that new official allergy treatment guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics should be forthcoming. In the meantime, they recommend that children at risk for peanut allergy undergo skin prick testing. If the test comes back negative, then parents should feed children a diet that includes 2 grams of peanut protein three times weekly for at least three years.
"Parents should seek more information from an allergist to clarify their individual situation with regards to food allergy prevention and treatment," Gierer says. "Peanut allergy is a very serious public health concern that is becoming more prevalent."
Sampson also recently presented his research on a new peanut allergy skin patch at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. The patch delivers small amounts of peanut protein through the skin.
The study, a clinical trial for the Viaskin Peanut patch, involved 221 people who were allergic to peanuts. The individuals used the patch, which delivered small amounts of peanut protein through the skin, for one year. By the end of the study, half of the subjects treated with the highest dose patch were able to handle about four peanuts’ worth of peanut protein, or 10 times the dose that they tolerated originally, Sampson said in a press release.
Watch: Yahoo News spoke with the family of a child who died after ingesting peanuts — and the doctor who’s trying to crack the allergy code.
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