The treatment for a severe allergic reaction to food has not changed much since the late 19th century — a quick shot of epinephrine and a rush to the doctor to stave off the rapid closing of airways, brain damage and possibly death.
Medical personnel, from school nurses to chiefs of hospital pediatric departments say such near fatal allergic reactions are becoming more common in children. So three Chicago medical institutions said on Wednesday they will collaborate on an extensive study to determine the cause of the increase and will plead for more federal research funding.
“I’ve been treating children in the field of allergy immunology for 15 years, and in recent years I’ve really seen the rates of food allergy skyrocket,” said Dr. Jacqueline Pongracic, head of the allergy department at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “Where in the past it only represented a small proportion of my practice, now more than half of the children I care for have a food allergy.”
Children’s Memorial, along with University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital and Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, is seeking up to 900 families for an extensive study that may contribute to a cure, or at least better treatment.
Data on whether there are more children suffering from food allergies now than in years past remain sparse. Estimates have been that from 6 to 8 percent of children under 4 years old have food allergies, but some experts believe the percentage is growing.
Dr. Scott Sicherer, of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, participated in a study that found allergic reactions to peanuts had jumped to 1 in 125 in 2002 from 1 in 250 in 1997.
“There are no studies looking in this country at whether the rate of food allergies has increased over long periods of time,” Sicherer said. “However there are studies showing increases in other allergic diseases… asthma, hay fever. If you put together all those sentences, or if you walk into any school and ask the school nurse if there has been more food allergies, all those things will lead to yes responses.”
The accumulation of largely anecdotal evidence has prompted action in Chicago and elsewhere.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, announced last year it would spend $17 million over five years for a food allergy research consortium at Mt. Sinai in New York.
Spending on food-allergy research by the allergy institute more than doubled last year to $7.7 million.
But that remains a paltry sum, according to the researchers who gathered at Children’s Memorial on Wednesday, who called on Congress to allocate $50 million annually for food-allergy research.
There are enough children with food allergies to do the thorough research needed to determine not only how many are now affected, but also to find better treatments, said Dr. Robert Schleimer, chief of the Allergy-Immunology Division at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
“We have the tools necessary for that type of development,” he said. “What we really need right now is the funding.”
For now, however, parents continue to discover that their child is allergic to certain foods much the way Kellee Konieczny did about five years ago.
About two hours after feeding her 9-month-old son Zachary soy milk in a bottle, he went limp in his father’s arms, began vomiting profusely and turned blue.
“You can imagine how that feels when it is your child and you are responsible for him,” she said. “It’s something you never want to see.” Zachary spent three days in the hospital, but recovered.
Charles Sheehan, Chicago Tribune