July 18, 2012 at 5:16 PM ET
Giving children with egg allergies small, and then increasingly higher, doses of the very food they are allergic to may eliminate, or at least reduce, reactions, a new study shows.
In a multi-center trial, 28 percent of kids experienced long-term elimination of egg allergies, while another 47 percent were able to tolerate some egg in their diets so long as they were on regular therapy, according to the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Called oral immunotherapy, the treatment is similar to the allergy shots people receive to reduce sensitivity to allergens such as dust, cat dander and ragweed, explains study co-author Dr. Robert Wood, director of allergy and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.
“Not having to worry about little exposures, and to be able to eat your birthday cake, is huge for these children,” Wood says.
Stephanie Kuroda agreed. Kuroda, the mom of Tad Berkery, now 10, one kid in the study who didn’t completely overcome his egg allergy, says she’s happy that her son is now able to eat foods that contain eggs so long as he gets a regular dose of egg protein in his diet.
Before the trial, “just 1/1,000 of an egg could cause breathing problems,” she explains. “It affected his life tremendously. We had to make his all his food and take it everywhere he went. He had to sit at a table separate from everyone else.”
And it wasn’t just Tad’s safety that Kuroda worried about. It was also how the allergy was affecting his social development.
“You end up with a child who is a little more separate from everyone,” she says. “As a parent you wonder how will this affect him. He goes to birthday parties and everyone else has cake and you have to bring his own dessert for him.
“It all contributes to making a child more hesitant to try new things – and not just food. From a safety standpoint that’s good, but from the standpoint of a childhood that should involve seeing the world and learning about new things, it’s not.”
About 8 percent of U.S. children have some sort of food allergy. More than 600,000 Americans, or 0.2 percent of the population, have an egg allergy. The numbers are highest among children, many of whom eventually outgrow their symptoms.
For the new study, 40 children between the ages of 5 and 11, were given small doses of egg white that increased with time. Another 15 children were given a cornstarch placebo powder.
Thirty-five of the 40 stuck with the study, and at the end of 22 months, they were tested with a larger dose of egg white powder -- the equivalent of half an egg. Of those, 30, or 75 percent of the original 40, had no reaction.
For the next four to six weeks, the children were then taken off their daily egg dose. When they were retested with the larger dose of egg white powder, just 11 children, or 28 percent of the original 40, had no reaction. A year later those children were eating eggs regularly, the researchers reported.
Wood believes this method will work on other food allergies, too, including peanuts.
For those like Tad who didn’t pass the second test, it may be enough to know that regular doses of egg whites could keep an egg allergy at bay.
“It’s life changing and liberating,” Kuroda says. “And it’s certainly made the world a lot safer for him. I think he’s more confident now and not so tentative as a result of the immunotherapy study.”