There has been much speculation about the alarming increase in the number of people with peanut allergy. Over and over I hear people say, "I didn't know anyone with a peanut allergy when I was growing up and now most kids seem to be allergic to peanuts". Many of us have wondered what's happening to cause so many children to become peanut allergic.
Author and historian Heather Fraser, wondered the same thing. After extensive research, Heather has put her findings in a book due out later this month, The History of the Peanut Allergy Epidemic.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Heather some questions about her research and interest in this subject. Read on, it's fascinating...
What compelled you to write a book about the history of peanut allergy?
I am the mother of a peanut/tree nut allergic child and an historian trained in academic research. Over a year ago, I began to read in-depth about the history of food allergy. I learned about Charles Richet, who coined the term "anaphylaxis" (c.1913) and Clemens von Pirquet who in 1906 called these altered reactions "allergy". I combed the literature and discovered that outbreaks of peanut allergy began to occur only after WWII. The medical literature revealed a slow but noticeable growth of the allergy in children through the late 1960s up until the late 1980s. Around 1990, there was a sudden explosion of this allergy just in toddlers. This moment of acceleration is well-documented by ER records, cohort studies of the time and eyewitness accounts. Society finally noticed that something was wrong when these kids showed up for kindergarten. The sudden surge of peanut and food allergic kids took everyone by surprise -- school systems, teachers, parents, communities.
I knew that this story would be important to parents of peanut allergic children. We are living in something of an information vacuum.
Was it difficult to track down research on this topic?
No. It was not difficult at all, but it was time consuming. The events that led up to the epidemic of peanut allergy in children unfolded in plain sight – medical journals, newspapers, magazines, and books all document what took place.
The History of the Peanut Allergy Epidemic pinpoints the precise moment of the allergy’s appearance and describes the perfect storm of social, medical, political and economic factors from which it has grown. My thesis, regarding the precipitating cause of the peanut allergy epidemic will challenge every parent. I hesitate to cut to the chase because a full appreciation of the causes should be revealed gradually within the context of over 100 years of history. Otherwise, the conclusion may come as too big of a shock to the reader – my goal is to get people thinking and talking about the peanut allergy from a new direction -- which is, how we as a society have created this epidemic.
A 2010 statistic from Australia shows that now 3% of school aged children have peanut allergy – this ballooning PA population has developed in just 20 years. All stats show that UK has been the worst hit by PA followed by parts of Australia, Canada, Sweden, the US. I would expect our numbers to be similar to those in Australia (ACT).
What was the most surprising thing you learned about peanut allergy while researching The History of the Peanut Allergy Epidemic?
According to Profet, anaphylaxis is a potentially deadly but evolutionarily programmed response to toxins/proteins that have penetrated first lines of natural defense and managed to enter the blood stream. All mammals exhibit anaphylaxis and have IgE. There is a debate in the medical literature over whether allergy is the outcome of a roulette style genetic predisposition to immune dysfunction OR is allergy an innate, purposeful immune response. It came as a surprise to me that allergy should have a function. The function is to protect the body against acute toxicity – the sneezing, itching, vomiting, diarrhea are attempts to eject a toxin as fast as possible; the drop in blood pressure to prevent the toxin from circulating to vital organs.
And researchers know “how to” create anaphylaxis – they create the condition regularly and easily in mice and other animals in labs. Richet created anaphylaxis time and again in his raw meat experiments with dogs and other animals over 100 years ago. None of the functional mechanisms of sensitizing a mammal are new to medicine. What seems to have happened today is that we have lost the threads and landmarks of the story as a whole. My book attempts to bring back the history and answer the question: how did millions of people, especially children, in the last 20 years become allergic to this one food? Although my conclusions are meticulously if not obsessively documented, they may still be difficult to accept.
What is the take-away you hope people will get after reading the book?
I hope to get parents thinking and talking about peanut allergy in more complete and broader terms than we do now. It is not a coincidence that hundreds of thousands of toddlers became allergic to the same food, at the same time, around 1990, and in just certain countries. Something precipitated and continues to cause this allergy almost exclusively in children – and more in boys than girls in a 2:1 ratio.
Where can people learn more about the book?
Visit http://www.peanutallergyepidemic.com for a time line and a first chapter free download. Next week I will begin selling copies of the book from the site via credit card (Visa®). There is a contact form at the website and I do have advance copies of the book available. Feel free to contact me with any questions.
We've all been wondering. Heather's research will now give us some of the answers. I couldn't help but shake my head as I read the first downloaded chapter. I had no idea...
Buy a copy for yourself, your allergist, the school nurse and your peanut allergic child. This book will clear up many questions and will, no doubt, have you shaking your head too.