Peanuts are a fantastic food: they don’t spoil, they’re high in protein and healthy fats and contain all kinds of trace minerals. Kids readily eat them in multiple forms. You can safely send a kid to school with your personal peanut-butter concoction and rest assured that it will be eaten and won’t cause them to fall ill if it sits in a warm locker all day.
EXCEPT that now, a growing number of people are deathly allergic to peanuts – and by deathly, I mean that about 75 deaths per year are estimated to be associated with peanut allergies in the US. Sadly, it only takes a tiny amount of contamination for a peanut-allergic person to wind up in the emergency room – since peanut allergies are estimated to cause over half of all emergency room visits, that accounts for 100,000 emergency room visits per year.
Up until very recently, peanut allergies were viewed as a lifelong disability, and the only recourse available was bringing treatment as quickly as possible and eliminating possible contamination. Oral immunotherapy or OIT now shows some promise as a possible intervention. This treatment is not new; OIT for milk allergies has been the subject of a long-term study and subcutaneous immunotherapy (allergy shots) are the standard of care for environmental allergies. The difference here is that peanut OIT can present a considerable amount of risk to the patient (do NOT try to treat your own allergies without seeking the help of a medical expert!)
Unfortunately, we don’t know if these therapies will be effective in the long-term. The milk study showed that many patients improved in the short term, but their allergies returned later in life. Immunologists are not convinced that the therapy is ready for the public, and cite possible adverse effects of the treatment such as eosinophilic esophagitis, an inflammatory disease of the esophagus that can cause difficulty with swallowing and other feeding difficulties.
What the news does offer is insight into how much work the scientific community is putting into solving this problem. While OIT as it stands may not be the answer, it is very clear that many people are hard at work making sure the answer will be found. While this intervention may not be ready today, there is definite hope for the food allergy community that a treatment is in the near future.
Filed under: Food News