Parents love peanut butter for its simplicity; kids love it for its taste.
Yet many children are excluded from eating it for health reasons. At the moment, there is no treatment for peanut allergies. Managing peanut allergies comes down to avoidance and injectable epinephrine when a life-threatening allergic response begins.
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The avoidance method could one day have an alternative. The Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh is participating in a worldwide study attempting to desensitize participants allergic to peanuts through wearing a patch containing a peanut protein. It's among 10 centers in the United States, six in France, four in Canada, two in the Netherlands and two in Poland.
Todd Green, the principal investigator in Pittsburgh, expects preliminary results in the next six months.
So far, the patch seems safe; it hasn't caused much bad reaction among patients at other centers, just some irritation, Green said. Gradually, it is hoped, the body can tolerate peanuts.
As many as 3 million people in the United States -- 1 percent of the population -- have peanut allergies, according to Tom Wood, a fellow at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. About 1.5 percent of children are allergic, making experts believe the allergy is becoming more common, Wood said.
With each participant, a patch applied to the skin gets changed every 24 hours for a year. The dosage varies among several randomly assigned groups: three will get extremely small doses -- 50 micrograms, 100 micrograms and 250 micrograms -- and a fourth will get a placebo. At the end of the study, Green will compare the reaction after 12 months of wearing the patch to the initial test.
Most school districts have a peanut-free table in the student lunchroom, but some parents object because they don't want their children to feel ostracized, said Michelle Marker, program director at The Nutrition Group, which handles food services for more than 130 school districts in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
In other districts, the entire school is peanut-free. In schools where a child has a severe peanut allergy, the service substitutes products made with sun butter from sunflower seeds, Marker said.
Wood cautioned against expecting immediate relief.
"If this study is successful, then there will be a larger study conducted," Wood said. "If that study sees good results, another larger study will need to be done. Potentially, in the next eight to 10 years, this could receive FDA approval."