Increasing Incidences of Food Allergies around the Globe

About 20 percent of the world population believe themselves to have a food allergy and only about five percent actually do.

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peanuts food allergies
Peanut is the most allergic food found by ‘EAT Study’ undertaken at King’s College, London. Image Source: Pixabay.com

The incidence of food allergies among children around the globe is on a rapid rise in recent years. If statistics are anything to go by then this incidence is more prevalent in the Western countries, affecting 7% of kids in U.K. and 9% of them in Australia. The percentage of food allergies among adults in Europe is reported to be about 2%.

How is an Allergy Caused?

Allergy is caused due to allergens. Allergens are seemingly harmless substances present in the environment which are however perceived wrongly and targeted by the body’s immune system.  The outcome of the war between allergens and the immune system manifests as allergic reactions in the individual. 

The allergic reactions are commonly seen in the form of skin redness, swelling and hives though sometimes serious impacts can include diarrhea, difficulty in breathing, vomiting and anaphylactic shock. The source of allergies in kids is usually common food items such as eggs, milk, shell fish, sesame, fish, and peanuts besides tree nuts like almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, pine nuts and pecans.

Is Allergy Life Threatening?

Most often, many people do not associate allergies with life threatening consequences but this is not the case. There have been instances when allergies have claimed the lives of affected people.  Recent case of two teenagers living in U.K. who were reported to have died after consumption of peanut and sesame highlights the serious impact that can be caused due to an allergy. This fact is corroborated by another case of a girl of six years old who died due to an allergy for dairy products in Australia.

Consumption of trigger foods even in smallest quantities can lead to grave consequences in some cases which mean that there is a constant sword of Damocles hanging over the head of the patients and their close ones. Restrictions with regard to diet can become quite overwhelming to the affected families. Though the exact causes are yet to be known the only solace that one can gain is the knowledge of huge efforts being undertaken by scientists, world over to find solutions to this problem. 

Regions with Greater Prevalence of Allergies

Developed countries that have made great industrial progress are the hub spots for food allergies among kids. Environmental factors and Western lifestyles contribute a great deal to their incidence. Some statistics that prove this fact are:

  • Rise in peanut allergies by almost five times in U.K. during the period 1995-2016
  • 2.5% peanut allergies found now in the study group of 1300 kids aged three years through the findings of ‘EAT Study’ undertaken at King’s College, London.
  • An Australian study showed that 9% of kids aged one had an egg allergy and 3% had an allergy to peanuts in the country.

Incidentally, the highest incidence of food allergy as per confirmed sources is found in Australia. The prevalence of food allergy and asthma is seen more among migrants living in their adopted country as against the country of their birth.

The incidence of food allergies is much less in developing countries and within them lesser in rural regions compared to cities and large towns. Less microbe exposure, pollution or dietary changes could be some of the reasons. 

It is therefore wrong to solely attribute the prevalence of allergies and food sensitivities to increased awareness and better diagnostic techniques of today’s times.

Reasons for Increased Incidence of Food Allergies

Increased incidence of food allergies can be attributed to a couple of factors. One is better hygiene facilities of today due to which occurrence of infections among kids is largely reduced. With not much work to be done the body’s immune system turns its force on substances which are quite harmless leading to allergic reactions.

A second factor could be the lack of vitamin D in a large section of the world’s population. Vitamin D is a vital ingredient that keeps the immune system’s responses healthy and thus reducing the risk of allergies. With a large population segment failing to spend time in sunlight remain deficient in vitamin D; in fact, the rate of this deficiency has increased two-fold over the last ten years in the U.S.A.

Possible Remedial Solutions for Food Allergies

One of the possible remedial actions to tackle the allergy issue is given by the theory of ‘dual allergen exposure’.  According to it development of food allergy is determined by mode of exposure, dose or timing. To give one example, allergy antibodies develop in skin of babies inflamed by eczema. 

However, habituating the young ones to trigger foods while weaning can help to avoid the development of allergy as then the stomach’s immune system gets used to the bacteria and the food. The LEAP study conducted at the King’s College London which used this as their basis indicated that 80% of kids as young as five years could surmount their peanut allergy by eating peanuts on a regular basis from the year of their birth. This prodded the U.S. government to modify their guidelines regarding eating of peanuts in infancy. In the U.K. parents are told to take the advice of their GP before any action.

Allergen immunotherapy can be said to be a result of the above study wherein subjecting the patients to small quantities of the trigger foods could decrease their sensitivity to allergic foods. This could offer protection to patients from inadvertent exposure. One of the drug trials of immunotherapy conducted in recent times showed that 67% of patients allergic to peanuts could eat amounts corresponding to two peanut kernels as against the control group’s 4%. However, they were not cured of their allergy.

Pathological Testing as a Diagnostic Measure

It is not so easy to make the initial diagnosis about the existence of food allergy among kids. One best way for food allergy identification is to let the patient consume the relevant food items and gradually increase their quantities under supervision of medical authorities. But this can be stressful for the kids and carries the possibility of an allergy breakout. Tests indicating reaction of their immune systems can be misleading.

A better alternative over the current methods has been given by the King’s College, London. They have suggested a blood test which gives accurate results for diagnosis of peanut allergy. The test is comprehensive, including food items that are a reason for about 90% of allergies among kids. Its availability is guaranteed over the next two years or so. 

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On a Concluding Note

The availability of superior diagnostic testing does not however, eliminate the risks of inadvertent eating. Till a fool proof treatment method is discovered the stressful factor of an allergy will continue to remain among kids and their guardians.

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