Peanut allergies are very common - something like one in every 200 children will suffer from some sort of reaction, and while roughly 100 people per year die as a result, peanuts are still thought to be the most prevalent food-related cause of death. Certainly, for those afflicted, it's a huge annoyance to be constantly checking labels and asking at restaurants just to make sure. So it's good to hear that Duke University researchers are making progress on a cure - or at least a therapy for reducing the effects of peanut exposure.
The cure for peanut allergy, at least for some people, appears to be ... peanuts. Peanut flour, taken daily in tiny and incrementally increasing doses, can help the body build up a tolerance to the point where sufferers can eat them without suffering any effects.
Many peanut allergy sufferers experience anaphylaxis - a severe allergic reaction - which is at the extreme end of the allergic spectrum. Symptoms may include generalised flushing, difficulty in breathing and can result in cardiac arrest and death.
Common causes of anaphylaxis include foods such as peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, fish, shellfish, dairy products and eggs. Non-food causes include wasp or bee stings, natural latex (rubber), penicillin or any other drug or injection.
Duke University, in association with the Arkansas Children's Hospital, has been working on studies in which children with known peanut allergies were given precisely measured doses of peanut flour with their food each day. Starting with the lowest possible dose that brings no adverse reaction (sometimes as little as a thousandth of a peanut), the children slowly increased their exposure over the course of two weeks.
After some testing, the children were then given larger doses per day. After eight-ten months of this treatment, the kids in one study were eating the equivalent to 15 peanuts per day with no reactions. Furthermore, four of the nine children in the study could ingest whole peanuts, not just the peanut flour.
In another study, five children on incrementally increasing doses of peanut flour were able to tolerate an average of 13 peanuts - in contrast to the placebo group, which was only able to tolerate one.
The catch to this treatment is that in order for it to remain effective, these children will have to keep a daily dose of peanuts in their diets to maintain the tolerance - a strange thought for those with allergies, but surely much nicer than having to deal with such a restrictive and potentially fatal condition.
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