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Have Peanut Allergies Been Caused By Being Too Cautious?

Posted Dec 04 2008 9:28am

The statement “may contain nuts” seems to be plaguing Britain’s packaging everywhere these days as the country is gripped by an overzealous attitude towards allergies.

That is not to say however, that peanut allergies are anything to laugh at or be taken lightly. Only last week there was a story in the news about a father who’d died after eating a takeaway that he’d been promised was nut free.

Over 40,000 people each year face life-threatening attacks. On top of that, the number of people being diagnosed with nut allergies seems to keep on rising. In Britain the figured doubled between 2001 and 2005. It is estimated that today there are as many as two children in every 100 with a peanut allergy.

There has never been a resolute cause identified for these severe peanut reactions. The Department of Health advised in 1998 that parents should avoid giving babies and small children nuts at all if there were any other known family members with allergies. Consequently, since that time, people have been far more cautious about the whole situation, and in turn the number of sufferers seems to have only gone up not down.

It may not surprise some of you then, to learn the results of a recent study looking at the eating habits of 8,000 British and Israeli children. Israelis have a similar genetic make-up as us, however it is very common for peanut paste to be one of the first solid foods that pass their mouths - and on average they consume around 7g of peanut a month. Their peanut allergy rate currently sits at less then two in 1,000. In stark contrast British children consume next to no peanuts at all and yet the allergy rate is two in 100.

The report, published in last October’s Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, concludes, “These findings raise the question of whether early introduction of peanut during infancy, rather than avoidance, will prevent the development of peanut allergy.”

It is a bit of a no-brainer and something I always grew up being taught (at least when it came to hygiene and playing in the mud) - the more you are exposed to something at a young age, the better your immunity will be to it. It works in the same way vaccines do - a small dose of a disease is injected into the body, the body’s immune system fights it off and in the future the disease cannot affect the body again, as the immune system has evolved. Countries all over the developing world feed babies all manner of supposedly dangerous foods, and yet their allergy rates are almost at zero.

That is not to say that we should all start serving up nt banquets to wee ones just yet though, as more research is needed. Professor Gideon Lack, who is running a six-year study at King’s College, London reports, “There’s reasonable doubt about the causes of peanut allergy. But I would urge parents not to feed babies peanuts until the research is complete.” It is estimated to be finished in 2012, but the Department of Health will review the official advice.

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