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There's a new strategy for avoiding peanut allergies

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Pediatricians are recommending a surprising way for parents to approach the problem: Feed your baby peanut products. [Metro Creative Connection]
Pediatricians are recommending a surprising way for parents to approach the problem: Feed your baby peanut products. [Metro Creative Connection]

Peanut-free lunch tables and EpiPens are almost as ubiquitous as backpacks in many American schools in response to life-threatening peanut allergies in growing numbers of students.

But pediatricians are recommending a surprising way for parents to approach the problem: Feed your baby peanut products.

This advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics may seem counterintuitive on the surface, but Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation immunologist Dr. Eliza Chakravarty said it actually makes a lot of sense.

“The human immune system is designed to protect you from dangerous invaders like bacteria and viruses,” she said. “But in this case, it mistakenly mounts an attack against a fairly harmless substance like a peanut as if it were a pathogen or virus.”

According to the AAP, the earlier parents can introduce a food like peanut butter to a child, the more time the child’s body has to recognize it as nonthreatening.

In other words, it’s a way to desensitize the immune system while it’s still developing, OMRF geneticist Dr. Patrick Gaffney said.

“We know there are specific proteins in peanuts that are often recognized as allergenic, so your body can learn early on to tolerate them,” Gaffney said.

The new strategy recommends “purposeful feeding” of peanut products between 4 and 11 months of age.

A report in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that only 1.9 percent of high-risk children who were introduced to peanuts between the ages of 4 and 6 months went on to develop an allergy. That’s in stark contrast to the nearly 14 percent of children who didn’t eat peanut products before the age of 5 and became allergic.

For a potentially lethal allergy that has tripled in prevalence in the U.S. in the past 20 years, any positive prevention results are good news, Gaffney said.

But why does it work best at such an early age?

“Because of a really cool organ called the thymus,” Chakravarty said. “It exists specifically to train your immune system to recognize what is normal and what is not.”

As you get older, the thymus continues to shrink and is practically gone once you’re an adult. But in early childhood, it is instrumental in the development of a strong immune system.

“It makes sense to capitalize on influencing the immune system at this early stage,” Chakravarty said. “If you have a young child at home, talk to your pediatrician about how to introduce these products in an infant-safe manner.”

Ryan Stewart is media relations coordinator for Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.

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