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Food Allergies at an All-Time High in the USA

By Kathy Franklin

Food allergy was in the headlines again last week. Published on June 20, 2011 in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the largest study ever conducted in the United States found that 8% of children ages 17 and under suffer from food allergy. That’s about 5.9 million children, even higher than previous estimates.

The researchers sampled about 40,000 children from June 2009 to February 2010. The very large sample size allows a great deal of confidence in the findings. I won’t bore you with the methodology and the rigor of the study; suffice it to say that the authors, Dr. Ruchi S. Gupta et al., conducted a well-designed scientific study, and there is every reason to trust the accuracy of the results.

Are you surprised that 1 in 13 children has a food allergy? I’m not. I recently paid a visit to an old friend, the nurse at my children’s former elementary school. We were chatting and catching up, when she suddenly jumped out of her chair and said, “I have to show you something.” She walked to the cabinet where she had kept my son’s EpiPen and opened the door. The two large shelves were overflowing with EpiPens and EpiPen, Jrs!

When my son started kindergarten, 20 years ago, he was the only child in the school with an EpiPen. When he graduated 8th grade, there were two of them, out of about 400 students. Today, another ten years later, there are 24 children with EpiPens!

Some of the most interesting findings in the Gupta study described the allergen-by-allergen incidence of food allergy. The most common was peanut, found in 25% of the allergic children, which translates into 2% of all American children, or almost one and a half million peanut allergic children. Wow. The second most common was milk, at 21% (1.24 million kids) and the third most common was shellfish, at 17%, or about one million youngsters. Shellfish is usually considered more common in adults, and, indeed, the large numbers were in the older children, but clearly, shellfish allergy is no longer just an adult problem.

2.28 million children (38.7%) had a history of severe food allergy, while just over 60% were categorized as mildly-to-moderately allergic. The odds of having a severe food allergy were significantly higher in males than in females, and the odds of having a severe food allergy were much higher in children with multiple food allergies than in those with a single food allergy.

Peanut and tree nut allergies tended to produce the most severe reactions. (No surprise there.) 52.5% of the tree-nut-allergic children had experienced severe reactions, compared to 29.5% of egg-allergic children.

Another interesting finding is that the odds of having a food allergy were higher in Asian and black children as compared to white children. Hispanic children had the lowest rates.

Do you have your own anecdotal measure of how food allergies have increased? Send us a comment.

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