By Sarah George | UTS Staff Writer | SQ Online (2014-15)
Over the last decade, the percentage of children with peanut allergies in the US has more than tripled. A new wave of children armed with EpiPens and makeshift PB&Js has entered the scene, ready to fight in case of exposure. For years, scientists have been intrigued by the steady increase in peanut allergies in certain countries but not others. Countries with medical practices similar to those in the US, such as Canada and the UK are also experiencing an increase in prevalence of this type of allergy, while the prevalence in Israel has remained quite stable. New research on the upward trend has since revealed that the time during which caregivers first introduce peanut products into infants’ lives can play an important role in the later acquisition of peanut allergies.
Allergies are influenced by both genetic and environmental factors, but research published by The New England Journal of Medicine in February suggests that the latter of the two may have a more considerable effect than previously thought. Ten years ago, the established thought of pediatricians in the US was that parents should only introduce foods associated with high-risk allergies once their children reached the age of 3. However, the study shows that very early introduction of peanut products in infants’ diets can have a considerable preventative effect on the acquisition of a peanut allergy. Two groups of infants were tracked for the study: the first group was introduced to peanut products at 7 months, while the second group consumed them for the first time at 60 months. At age 5, both groups were tested for peanut allergies. The results were striking. In the group that began consuming peanut products earlier on, the prevalence of peanut allergy was only 3.2 percent, as opposed to 17.2 percent in the control group.
This outcome sheds light on why Israeli children aren’t following the same patterns in peanut allergy incidence as American children. In Israel, most households consume a peanut-based snack called Bamba. Puffy and popular, the snack is usually introduced in babies’ diets as soon as they can consume solid food. While more investigation is required to be certain, common practices like these may explain the lower allergy prevalence in certain countries.
A shift in attitude toward high allergy risk foods may be well overdue for American pediatricians. Implementation of peanut products as well as other common instigators of food allergies like shellfish and tree nuts in infant diets may be the next step toward combating allergies. While more research is still required to determine why certain people develop allergies regardless of early exposure, the data presented provides evidence that may encourage greater consideration for early introduction of peanut products.