Why do children in Israel have fewer peanut allergies?
New research suggests giving peanut products at an early age may reduce the risk of allergic reactions.
What's the best way to make sure that your child doesn't have an allergic reaction to peanuts? The conventional wisdom says keeping peanuts away from kids may be the best preventative measure. But that conventional wisdom may not be true.
It turns out that parents in many countries around the world feed their children peanut products, such as the peanut soup of West Africa and the porridge of rice, peanut butter and sugar common to Central Africa. In Israel, the peanuts come in the form of a popular snack called Bamba, which has a lock on 25 percent of the country's snack-food market. Parents regularly feed these peanut-butter-flavored puffed maize snacks (which look kind of like American Cheez Doodles) to their kids.
And this appears to have made a difference: research back in 2008 showed that Israeli children have peanut allergies at one-tenth the rate of British kids. The study also found that 69 percent of Israeli infants consumed peanut products. That rate in the United Kingdom? Just 10 percent.
A study published in 2013 took this to the next level. Researchers gave small amounts of peanut powder to a group of people with documented peanut allergies. The subjects received the peanut powder every day for 44 weeks. By the end of the test period, they had become at least somewhat desensitized to peanuts. In other words, their allergies were less.
This brings us back to Bamba, which in Israel is often given to children as young as six months of age. "The advantage of this snack is that you can even put it into the mouths of babies who don’t have teeth, because it really melts," said Dr. Yael Levy, deputy director of the Kipper Institute of Immunology at Schneider Children's Medical Center of Israel.
The researchers in the 2013 study admit that it is limited, as 40 percent of test subjects still experienced some peanut allergy symptoms and they did not enroll any subjects whose allergies were considered life-threatening. The study also had a high dropout rate. But the results were enough to convince the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology to change its recommendations to say that peanut butter, eggs and other potentially highly allergenic foods could be fed to babies as young as four months of age to help them become acclimated to the products.
As study co-author David Fleisher explained to the Wall Street Journal, "We need to get the message out now to pediatricians, primary-care physicians and specialists that these allergenic foods can be introduced early."
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