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Maryland and D.C. Among Worst for Food Allergies

Researchers are studying ways to de-sensitize children to potentially fatal food allergies.

File | Patch
File | Patch

By Aviva Woolf
Capital News Service

Food allergies in children have risen 50 percent since the late 1990s, with Maryland and D.C. having some of the highest rates in the country. And no one knows why.

To combat the rise, the Centers for Disease Control, which reported the 50 percent increase in a 2013 study, recently released a guide to assist schools. The guidelines label symptoms of an allergy attack, including how a child would articulate such symptoms, like, “my mouth feels funny” or “my tongue feels like there is a hair on it.”

A delay in treatment, typically epinephrine, can result in death in as little as 30 minutes.

Epinephrine, commonly administered through an auto-injector called an EpiPen, is essentially adrenaline. When injected into the outer thigh, the hormone will open airways that constrict during an allergy attack.

The guidelines also expound on how to explain allergies to children, how to keep children’s lunches separate and how to create a positive psychosocial climate in the classroom.

Kaylin Bugos, a senior at the University of Maryland, has known she’s been extremely allergic to peanuts and tree nuts ever since her uncle innocently fed her a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup when she was 3.

She was immediately rushed to the hospital. She and her family have been vigilant ever since.

“My teachers in elementary school had always been understanding,” said Bugos. “But my parents put a high premium on me knowing what to do in any situation. They taught my friends how to use EpiPens. If they were overprotective, I can’t really blame them for it. I could easily die from it.”

Although rates have been rising all over the United States, Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a health services researcher at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine/Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, put Maryland and D.C., as well as Delaware, New Jersey, Florida, Nevada, Georgia and Alaska, as areas with the highest rates of food allergies.

The study, the first to map the disease by zip code, found that children in large urban areas are twice as likely to have peanut allergies as children in rural areas.

“We don’t really understand why it looks like this,” said Gupta. 

The most common food allergies, such as nuts, milk and shellfish, affect roughly 4 percent to 6 percent of children, according to the CDC.

The Food Allergy Research and Education organization puts the number higher, at 8 percent. An estimated 5.9 million children or two per every classroom in the United States suffers to some degree from food allergies.

As for why cities produce more children with allergies, Gupta said that is the focus of the next study.

“There are a lot of theories. It could be what we’re eating, a lot of pesticides and GMOs (genetically modified organism) There’s also a hygiene hypothesis. Another common theory is exposure. Children on farms are exposed to animals, we see less allergies, asthma, eczema there,” said Gupta.

Now FARE is funding therapies that could strengthen immune systems in children. One is oral immunotherapy, a process of administering the food allergen mixed with another food in progressively higher and higher doses until the body is used to it. Another therapy currently being tested is using Chinese herbs to prevent anaphylactic reactions.

Since 2009, the Maryland State Department of Education has mandated that each jurisdiction have a procedure in the event that a child having an attack does not have an epinephrine auto-injector. While most children with a prescription for an EpiPen usually have it on them at all times, 25 percent of potentially life-threatening anaphylactic reactions happen with children with no previous history of food allergies, according to the CDC.

“If schools can take that one step to have EpiPens, it could make a huge difference,” said Bugos. “For kids having allergic reactions, epinephrine can give you 15 extra minutes. And those 15 extra minutes can be the difference between life and death.”

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