If you or someone you know is allergic to peanuts, help may be on the way. The Food and Drug Administration last week said it has approved the first medicine designed to treat reactions to peanuts.
The new drug, Palforzia, will not cure a peanut allergy. The Washington Post reported that taking the medicine “comes with significant risks of triggering the very reactions it is supposed to quell.” But it is expected to offer assistance to families that have devised intricate routines to protect a child from exposure to peanuts.
This topic leads to a question: How is it that this food, which for so long was part of all-American products like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, roasted peanuts or boiled peanuts, has become so dangerous for a small but significant percentage of the population?
Most peanut allergies begin in childhood, and now include at least 2 percent of American children. That figure basically has been doubling every decade since the 1990s.
The problem is to the point that most schools have removed anything containing a peanut product from their lunchrooms, and families with a child who is allergic to peanuts must restrict ordinary activities like going to a restaurant for fear of accidential contact that will lead to a reaction.
Some peanut reactions are relatively minimal — a runny nose, an itchy throat or stomach cramps. Others are deadly serious, requiring an EpiPen injection to assist with breathing and a trip to a hospital emergency room.
As to why the number of people with peanut allergies continues to rise, you can find any number of theories on the internet. Generally, medical specialists don’t think there’s one particular reason this has become such a problem.
One concept that makes sense, though, is called the “hygiene hypothesis.” This idea notes that peanut allergies are a sign that a person’s immune system is malfunctioning. A 2015 story on the mic.com website says that in past generations, American children were exposed to more everyday bacteria and viruses, which stimulated the immune system to repress the invaders.
“Today, by contrast, with ever greater advances in hygiene, the theory goes that the immune system has less to do and lashes out at more banal things — like peanut proteins — in an attempt to stay relevant,” the website said.
A 2017 statement from FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb cited a clinical trial that found that introducing foods containing peanut butter to infants as young as four months who were at a high risk of developing a peanut allergy reduced those chances by 80 percent.
Other medical experts, however, recommend delaying a child’s exposure to peanuts until they are older, when any allergic reaction will be easier to manage. The conflicting advice surely puts parents in a bind.
Back to Palforzia. It appears to be based on the same theory as your annual flu shot, which gives you a tiny dose of the flu so that your body will produce a reaction to kill it. Children from ages 4 to 17 who take the medicine also must eat increasing doses of peanut protein to get their immune system used to it. Any parent who has seen their child have a serious reaction to peanuts may balk at that idea.
Researchers say Palforzia is an important test case for a new generation of medicine to treat various food allergies. The company that produced this drug has several other food allergy medications in development.
There may be another allergic reaction to this medicine — involving money. Palforzia will cost up to $890 per month, although there will be a program that can reduce the price to as low as $20. For families who must pay the larger amount, it may be easier on the bank account to continue the lifestyle of peanut avoidance.