A Peanut Allergy Epidemic?

Remember the 2005 news story about the girl who'd died after kissing her boyfriend. Because he ate peanuts earlier in the day? Well a curious and resourceful writer interviewed the pathologist - the girl died of an asthma attack attributed to smoking pot. But we never heard about that.

Not until Meredith Broussard's article "Everyone's gone nuts: The exaggerated threat of food allergies" in Harper's January issue. Broussard pokes holes in the widespread belief that peanut allergies lead to hundreds of deaths per year. She reports the data behind peanut allergies and finds we've saddled ourselves and our kids with more anxiety than necessary. She concludes there's no evidence more kids have food allergies than in the past. I do think, however, she may be wrong on this point. More than a few studies do show a rise in allergies. But I admire her courage in tackling such an emotionally-charged topic. We do need some reason in this realm.

You can also catch Broussard talking about the so-called peanut allergy epidemic with Leonard Lopate at NPR. Be sure to read the comments from angry listeners, especially the parents of children with life-threatening allergies. One such mother thanks Broussard because she's worried about all the non-allergic kids out there clogging the peanut-free tables, obscuring the plight of the truly allergic.

You'll have to find the January Harper's to read her interview - you can't get it for free on-line.


Mary said...

What I find interesting about those that think peanut allergy is "overblown" is that we still have more people die in the US of anaphylaxis food reactions every year than any natural disaster..ie hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, etc. Further the # of emergency hospital visits are many many times more than the death stats.

And this true even though we have so much energy at schools, education on the subject and controversy of bans etc..

One can only think how many more deaths and emergency room visits would be true if we were less diligent about removing allergic foods from those that have such allergies in our schools.

Dr. Polly said...

Thanks for your comments, Mary. Do you have children who have severe allergies? Thanks for reminding us that allergies can be life-threatening. I have some significant allergies myself and a two-year old boy who fits the allergy profile (eczema, fair skin, left-handed) so I share your concerns. I'm not very familiar with the literature but I do think allergies are on the rise.

DrGwenn said...

As a pediatrician and a pediatrician who has worked in pediatric emergency rooms, I tend to agree with you - food allergies are on the rise and we are seeing more nut allergies than when we were kids. In fact, pediatric literature does support that.

The thinking is this may be a consequence of a number of factors - a more "clean" environment due to better health, immunizations, sanitation. Plus, parents introducing foods too early.

Some food allergies, nuts and seafood in particular, can be life threatening and frightening to treat. To make light of this or dow play it would be a mistake.

At the same time, I do feel we have to be careful to not over worry our kids and as a society we do tend to do that with many issues. That is the only point I agree with in Broussard's comments.

Dr. Polly said...

Thanks for weighing in with the viewpoint from the pediatric field. I imagine there are many doctors who disagree with Broussard's viewpoint.

I just read about some research (at Duke, I think) investigating whether babies given nuts within the first month or so of life develop immunity or allergies to nuts. I think the control group gets nuts at age three. Could you imagine volunteering your child for that trial?

PM said...

Broussard's article sure opened a can of worms. Life-threatening allergies are not a joke and yet this doesn't mean we can't examine the issue more closely. It's quite possibly we've overblown the number of kids with these severe nut allergies.