In the United States researchers estimate that up to 15 million people have food allergies, including 5.9 million children.
That’s 1 in 13 children of roughly two in every school classroom in the country. About 30 percent of those children are allergic to more than one food.
In St. Louis County, that equates to around 17,000 children facing a food allergy every day.
One of those children is 7-year-old Logan Hughes, he’s allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. His mother, Natalie, discovered the allergy when Logan ate peanut butter at the age of 2.
“He was acting a little strange and then he got this red rash all on his face,” said Hughes.
For years, his family feared for his health whenever he left the home, until a few months ago.
Now Natalie Hughes says “it is amazing we have peanuts now in the house because he eats 12 plus peanuts every day.”
Ally Kalishman, 15, has a similar story. She is allergic to dairy, eggs, nuts and shellfish.
“My parents had to take so many precautions when I was little, I mean when I was a baby, I was crawling around, I put everything in my mouth,” said Ally.
She said growing up with all those food allergies made lunchtime a tough time.
“I had a special table up until I was 12, everyone had to sign up if they wanted to sit with me,” added Ally.
Her mother Amy was constantly worried about Ally's life, especially when Ally was little and wanted to go over to a friend’s house for a playdate.
“I wanted people to be educated about (her allergies) but I did not want to scare them so much they never wanted to have her over,” said Amy Kalishman.
But now mealtimes for Ally are drastically different
“It’s pretty amazing to think she’s eating milk on a daily basis,” said Amy.
It’s all possible because Logan, Ally and dozens of other St. Louis area children have gone through Oral Immunotherapy or OIT at Allergy Asthma and Sinus Care Center in south St. Louis County.
Dr. Manoj Warrier at the practice describes OIT as “the process of desensitizing someone to a food so that an accidental exposure does not lead to a life-threatening reaction.”
Dr. Warrier has a personal reason for wanting his practice to start up OIT in the St. Louis area.
He said it started because “there’s a large selfish component since my daughter, who is 11, has peanut allergies.”
His daughter was the first OIT patient at the practice and now eats peanuts without any difficulty, although Warrier adds, “she does not love the taste.”
The OIT process works by using a staircase method of gradually increasing the amount of the food allergen a child eats until he or she builds up a tolerance.
Dr. Warrier says many of the parents are interested in OIT for peanut allergies because “most fatal allergic reactions happen with peanuts.”
There are multiple steps in the process of OIT. First the patient has the “rush desensitizing protocol” where they are at the office for up to six hours trying out minuscule amounts of their particular food allergen. In the case of peanut allergies, the doctors combine peanut flour into a sweet juice mixture or Cool-Aid for the children to drink.
As soon as they finish that portion of the treatment, the patient goes home eating that amount of the allergen and comes back every 2-3 weeks to attempt to increase the amount of the allergen they can tolerate.
When a patient successfully completes the food challenges, they can safely tolerate eating about 24 peanuts without any problems. That’s the average amount of peanut found in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
To put that in perspective, in a different treatment going through FDA approval process right now, patients could only safely eat 2.5 peanuts.
Right now for patients trying OIT in St. Louis, 85 percent are able to pass their final food challenge, but Dr. Warrier warns there are still dangers to consider.
He said, “this is not for the faint of heart, there are serious risks associated with OIT, it’s not meant for home use to go try this, and we do follow medical protocols for this.”
Still, he is an advocate for OIT and the benefits it can bring to people's lives.
“Speaking for myself, this is the most impact I will probably have in changing people's lives,” said Warrier.
As for the Hughes and Kalishman families, they agree.
In talking about Logan, Natalie Hughes says “now he’s not special anymore, he doesn’t have to have the special treats, he does not have to be singled out, and he does not have to eat at the no peanut table.”
The change in diet for her daughter Ally has blown Amy Kalishman away, “just nine months ago she had pizza for the first time, ice cream for the first time, chocolate for the first time.”
Ally agrees, saying, “It’s crazy, I’m trying these foods for the first time that most people have had their entire life.”
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