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February 24, 2015 05:40 PM

Could severe peanut allergies become a thing of the past?

A landmark new study offers hope – but don’t go feeding your babies peanuts just yet.

On Monday, the New England Journal of Medicine released the results of a five-year British-based study that tested whether giving small amounts of peanuts to babies at risk for the allergy could reduce the rates of the allergy as older children.

The results? A resounding yes.

According to the study, only 3.2 percent of the babies who were given peanut products tested positive for peanut allergies as 5-year-olds, compared to 17.2 percent of children who avoided peanuts during the period of the study.

“The early introduction of peanuts significantly decreased the frequency of the development of peanut allergy among children at high risk for this allergy,” the study concluded.

Those results could have a major impact on the way parents try to protect their children against peanut allergies, and who had previously believed they should withhold peanuts from their infants.

The study, known as LEAP (Learning Early About Peanut Allergy) comes at a time when peanut allergies are more common than ever. According to the study, their prevalence has doubled in the past 10 years in Western countries, and are on the rise in Africa and Asia.

In the U.S., schools are increasingly becoming peanut-free zones, and parents and childcare workers are armed with Epi-pens in case their children enter anaphylactic shock. Peanuts everywhere from airplanes to the Halloween candy bowl can be a potential hazard for those with serious allergies.

So what should nervous parents do to try to help their babies avoid a potentially life-threatening peanut allergy? Talk to your child’s pediatrician, recommends Dr. Rebecca S. Gruchalla, who wrote an editorial for the NEJM about the study.

“We believe that because the results of this trial are so compelling, and the problem of the increasing prevalence of peanut allergy so alarming, new guidelines should be forthcoming very soon,” she writes.

“In the meantime, we suggest that any infant between 4 months and 8 months of age believed to be at risk for peanut allergy should undergo skin-prick testing for peanuts,” she continued. “If the test results are negative, the child should be started on a diet that includes 2 grams of peanut protein three times a week for at least 3 years.”

Gruchalla said children who show a mild sensitivity should undergo a “food challenge” from an experienced doctor, and make decisions on peanut consumption based on the results.

“Although other studies are urgently needed to address the many questions that remain, especially with respect to other foods, the LEAP study makes it clear that we can do something now to reverse the increasing prevalence of peanut allergy,” Gruchalla said.

And that’s music to many nervous parents’ ears.

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