It's estimated one out of every eight children in this country has a food allergy, a number that's shot up nearly 20-percent since the late 1990's. There is no cure, so the only way to protect those kids is to help them avoid the foods that make them sick. But that could someday change.
Doctors are tying a new approach to fighting food allergies by having children consume the very foods they're allergic to. As a baby, Alex Pritchard was diagnosed with severe food allergies including eggs which, as his mother Tammy quickly found out, are everywhere. "It's in everything from flu-shots to meatballs, because you use egg as a binder when you cook" she said. Because of that, Alex spent most of his life avoiding a wide range of foods. But now, eggs are back on the menu.
Doctor David Fleischer is a food allergy expert at National Jewish Health in Denver, he said, "it took a while for Alex to get to that point, but, you know, his life has completely changed."What made the difference for Alex was a therapy based on exposure, not avoidance. Doctor Fleischer treated Alex with what's known as a Immunotherapy.
First, patients are put through a test developed called a food challenge. That tells doctors precisely what foods kids are allergic to, and then using small doses in powdered form, the children are exposed to those foods a little more every day.
"The overall goal is to see if they can actually outgrow their allergies, meaning they can actually develop tolerance over time," Doctor Fleischer said. And early results show the strategy is working.
In the past year, researchers have reported positive results for both egg and peanut allergies, though their results come with a caution. "We're dealing with food allergens that can be very dangerous. This is not something that can be done at home," Fleischer said. But when it is done correctly and monitored closely by a physician, this approach can change lives.
Though they've seen some success, this approach to treating food allergies is still in the early stages, so doctors say they need more studies to perfect it. And another reminder these tests should not be tried without the guidance of the medical expert. They need to monitor these situations closely so they can respond immediately if patients have a negative reaction.