By Atara Neugroschl, Staff Writer
Over the past decade, peanut allergies have neared an epidemic. Most elementary and middle schools are peanut-free zones. All packaged food companies are required to report if their products were created in facilities that process peanuts. A majority of airlines no longer distribute peanuts on their planes. There are even bakeries that are established to specifically service those with peanut allergies. This vigilance regarding peanut allergies is mainly centered around the intensity of the allergy and the alarming rise in peanut allergy cases. Exposure to peanuts, for those allergic, could result in anaphylaxis (a set of severe reactions including low blood pressure and shortness of breath that can be fatal if not treated immediately). While most allergies are prevalent in children who eventually outgrow it, only 20% of those allergic to peanuts develop a tolerance. Additionally, the cases of peanut allergies have drastically increased over the past decade: from 2010 to 2017, peanut allergies increased by 21%. This alarming statistic leaves scientists bewildered, wondering why there has been such a sudden increase in peanut allergies.
To properly understand this question, it should first be noted that peanut allergies are not the only allergies that have increased over the past years. There, in fact, has been an increase in nearly all food allergies, however peanut allergies have received the most attention due to the unique nature of the peanut protein which makes peanuts a particularly potent allergen. The most prevalent theory as to why allergies have been on the rise has been dubbed the “Hygiene Theory.” Proponents of this theory claim that societies’ increased cleanliness leads to children being exposed to fewer germs, and with fewer germs to fight, the immune system instead fights harmless substances, thereby developing an allergy. This theory is corroborated by a study linking socioeconomic status with peanut allergies, finding that the rate of peanut allergies is higher among those of higher economic statuses. Other theories claim that it relates to the pesticides involved in growing peanuts or vitamin D deficiency. However, all these theories remain unproven and speculative.
Due to this lack of clear understanding with regards to the origin of the allergy, doctors have had varying approaches and advice for limiting the development of peanut allergies in children. In the early 2000s, parents were advised to avoid feeding their children peanuts, attributing the prevalence of the allergy to the harms of early exposure. By 2010, however, there had been no indication of this approach having any impact. Now, the advice has shifted entirely to promoting early exposure as a method to avoid developing the allergy. This was proven through a large study involving feeding babies Bamba, the popular peanut-flavored Israeli snack, which protected hundreds of Israeli children from developing the peanut allergy. This study, along with various successive trials, has proven the benefits of early exposure in mitigating cases of peanut allergies.
Doctors have focused on ways to prevent future instances of peanut allergies, and researchers have been testing methods to help those already allergic. On January 31, the FDA approved the first drug aimed at protecting against peanut allergies, Palforzia, developed by California-based pharmaceutical company, Aimmune Therapeutics. The drug contains small amounts of purified peanut protein powder, beginning in minuscule doses and increasing slowly to a larger, consistent amount. When administered to children and teenagers, the immune system slowly learns that peanuts are not foreign bodies that need to be attacked, and after taking the drug, two-thirds of patients were able to tolerate the amount of protein contained within two peanuts. While this drug is not a cure for peanut allergies, it provides a critical safety net for those with severe peanut allergies. Rather than fearing exposure to peanuts or accidental consumption, those allergic can have a sense of relief knowing minimal intake of peanuts will no longer be lethal to them.
While there is not yet a cure to peanut allergies, with the proper measures in place and the research being done, there can be less panic surrounding the allergy. Eventually, with the implementation of this new drug, airlines might once again hand out peanut snacks on flights, schools will allow peanuts, and with more people being treated for peanut allergies, there will no longer be the panic currently surrounding the peanut allergy.