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Study: Food Allergies in Children Becoming More Common, Severe

June 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
A new study out Monday find that children's food allergies are now more common, and more severe. Gwen Ifill discusses the findings with Dr. Ruchi Gupta, the lead author of the study.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, the rising number of children with food allergies.

A new study out today in the journal “Pediatrics” finds they are growing more common and more severe. The survey of nearly 40,000 U.S. parents found that nearly eight percent of children under the age of 18, about six million of them, have a food allergy. Researchers also concluded that nearly 40 percent of those reactions are severe, and nearly one-third have sensitivities to more than one food.

The study was sponsored by the Food Allergy Initiative, a research advocacy group.

Dr. Ruchi Gupta is the lead author of the study. She’s a pediatrician at Children’s Memorial Hospital and an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s School of Medicine.

The one — the first question that comes to mind, Dr. Gupta, is that this never used to happen. At least it didn’t seem like it. We’re talking about six million children with food allergies. Why so many now?

DR. RUCHI GUPTA, Children’s Memorial Hospital: So, that’s a great question.

And there’s a lot of theories on why. But what is really important is that it does exist. And it’s one out of every 13 kids, two in almost every classroom in America. A lot of kids have food allergy, and a lot of kids have severe food allergy.

GWEN IFILL: How did you come up with these numbers?

DR. RUCHI GUPTA: We surveyed 40,000 families across the United States to get these numbers.

And we were able to ask food-allergy specific questions, like, what type of food allergy they have, what type of reactions, how it was diagnosed. And this allowed us to paint a really good picture of what food allergy looks like today.

GWEN IFILL: So, tell me what kind of — what the answers were. What kind of food allergies are we talking about?

DR. RUCHI GUPTA: So, the most common food allergy — of all children with a food allergy, the most common food allergy was peanut allergy. About 25 percent of kids had a peanut allergy.

After that, it was a milk allergy. About 21 percent of kids with a food allergy had a milk allergy, and then shellfish. And then other common food allergy include egg, wheat, soy, fin fish and tree nuts.

GWEN IFILL: Are children more likely to fall victim to these allergies because of their socioeconomic status or because of where they were raised or their racial background?

DR. RUCHI GUPTA: So, that’s a great question.

And we do have data in this database to look at that. On first look, it looks like children who are African-American or Asian had a higher chance of having a food allergy, but they had a lower chance of being diagnosed with food allergy. Now, lower-income children had a lower chance of having a food allergy and a lower chance of being diagnosed with a food allergy.

This starts to make us think that maybe some disparities exist, especially in the diagnosis of food allergy, maybe related to access to care, and maybe related to not really understanding what a food allergy is. Or many families may be just avoiding the food and not discussing it with their physician, because, currently, there is no cure or preventative medicine a child can take who has a food allergy.

GWEN IFILL: Now, a lot of people say allergy, so what? A rash, a sneeze. But your — your report finds severity. Describe what you mean by that.

DR. RUCHI GUPTA: So, that’s a very important point of the study.

So, what we found — allergy, I think the term is misleading. So, allergy, a lot of people think of you know, sneezing, runny, watery eyes for environmental allergies. And oftentimes, for food allergies, people think of rash, hives, maybe vomiting or a little bit of swelling.

And this can occur. This is a mild reaction, mild to moderate reaction, for food allergy. But what we found was that 40 percent, so, about two in every five kids who have a food allergy, actually have a severe reaction. And by severe reaction, we mean trouble breathing, throat closing, drop in blood pressure, pretty much any reaction that is life-threatening and can lead to death. And it has and it does.

GWEN IFILL: And does exposure, does it have to be ingestion? Is this milk that you have to drink, peanut butter you have to eat, or you can merely be around nut substances or around shellfish and have the same kinds of reactions?

DR. RUCHI GUPTA: Yes, so, often — obviously, with eating, you will get the reaction.

But a lot of people have sensitivity to touching the object. So, if the food touches them, they may break out in a rash or hives in that area. Some have speculated that it can be in the air, and some kids are that sensitive, but, usually, it has to be by touch or ingestion.

GWEN IFILL: You said at the beginning of our chat here that there are lots of theories about why it seems like there are more allergies than there used to be when we were growing up.

DR. RUCHI GUPTA: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: But if you don’t have an answer to that question, what are parents supposed to do to prepare themselves or to guard against this?

DR. RUCHI GUPTA: So, the theories that you mentioned, I will tell you what a couple of them are. Now, none of them are fully substantiated, and research is being done currently to look into it.

But there are theories, like the cleanliness or hygiene hypothesis, that we are too clean in our society, and our immune system isn’t fighting…

GWEN IFILL: Too clean?

DR. RUCHI GUPTA: Too clean.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: Our immune systems aren’t able to fight the germs they used to fight, and so they are fighting things they shouldn’t be fighting, like food and environment.

Other theories are about how our Western diet is today, how the foods, the pesticides, maybe it’s changing our gut flora, so we’re more susceptible to food allergy. So — so, there are theories. And there are studies being conducted. There is — there’s a large study in — all over the country.

It’s called the National Children’s Study. They’re going to follow children from before birth until 18. And they’re going to collect genetic material and environmental material. And, maybe someday, we will have an answer.

But, today, we do have a couple of these theories that we’re trying to substantiate. And your second question was what…

GWEN IFILL: Well, what — quickly, how parents should deal with this.

DR. RUCHI GUPTA: So, if they think their child has a food allergy or what…

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

DR. RUCHI GUPTA: … what — how — yes.

GWEN IFILL: Or how to guard against it.

DR. RUCHI GUPTA: So, it is scary. Right. Right. It is scary. I wish there were guards against it. It’s hard.

If a child starts reacting to a food or breaks out in a rash or has some vomiting or anything, the parents should note what food it was and take them to their doctor and get tested. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of theories on what you can do to prevent a food allergy today, but hopefully in the near future.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Ruchi Gupta of Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, thank you so much.

DR. RUCHI GUPTA: Thank you.