Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Just Say No to Nuttiness Over Nuts

Some smart doctors think we may be getting too hyped up over peanut and other nut allergies.

Okay, at least one smart doctor, Nicholas A. Christakis over at Harvard says in a recent British Medical Journal column (This Allergies Hysteria Is Just Nuts) that our culture of nut-free tables and the like may be doing us a disservice, overstressing the real risks of food allergies, including the often serious peanut allergy.

He notes that although roughly 3 million Americans are allergic to nuts, 6.9 (myself included!) are allergic to seafood. Food allergies account for 150 deaths a year - significantly less, he reminds us, than deaths from drowning (2,000) or guns (1,300) or hospitalizations caused by sports-related traumatic head injuries (10,000).

When's the last time you worried about your child on the playing field?

I know, I know, some of you have children with very severe, life-altering allergies. My nieces and nephews are in that crowd. And I worry about my toddler who's just now getting nuts for the first time. It's scary, but it's helpful to remember the relative risks. Just getting into a car risks death and serious injury not to mention an incident or two of motion sickness.

I'm sure we all have incidences of nut hysteria - and Christakis reports an over-the-top school bus "crime scene" so to speak, the vehicle evacuated and decontaminated due to a peanut on the floor, a bus ridden by 10 year-olds who presumably would not pick up nor eat the nut off the floor, especially in light of a serious allergy.

The Harvard prof goes so far as to suggest we've entered a time of public mania, what we psychologist refer to as "mass psychogenic illness" - with unpleasant consequences like children not being sensitized at all to nuts, meaning, having no exposure at all to nuts. Which might turn out more nut allergies. A recent British study has suggested early exposure might actually protect kids against food allergies. Intriguing stuff I wrote about a few weeks ago. Moreover, the more dangerous we declare nuts, the more fear among parents, the more anti-nut policies and procedures, the greater the hysteria. A vicious loop.

Check out the comments over at Tara Parker Pope's post on the issue..or go to Dr. Christakis' website and his recent columns for the BMJ (British Medical Journal). Yes, if you recognize his name, you've heard it here before - he's done much child-centered research - including studies on obesity, early television viewing and other good stuff.

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