Study Shows High Prevalence/Severity of Childhood Food Allergy in the U.S.

A national study of food allergies in the U.S., the largest of its kind, finds that more children have food allergies than previously reported.

The study, published in the July issue of Pediatrics, and headed by Ruchi Gupta, MD, MPH, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and pediatrician, shows food allergy affects 8 percent of children under 18 years of age, or about 5.9 million children in the U.S. Of those, 38.7 percent had a history of severe reactions, and 30.4 percent had multiple food allergies. Children with food allergies were most commonly allergic to peanuts (25.2 percent), milk (21.1 percent) and shellfish (17.2 percent).

“The large, population-based nature of this study shows that pediatric food allergy is a significant and growing problem in our society,” said Gupta.  “Based on our data, about 1 in every 13 children has a food allergy. What’s more, nearly 2 out of every 5 affected children suffer from a severe food-allergy. For these children, accidental ingestion of an allergenic food may lead to difficulty breathing, a sharp drop in blood pressure, and even death. Now that we understand just how far-reaching the problem of food allergy truly is, we can begin taking the necessary steps to keep these children safe.”

To determine the true prevalence of food-allergy, researchers surveyed nearly 40,000 U.S. households with children. Participants were asked to answer a battery of questions for a randomized child in their household, including present or past food allergy, date of onset, method of diagnosis, and reaction history for each reported allergen. Detailed demographic items were also included.  Said Gupta, “What makes this study so unique is not only the large number of households surveyed, but the amount of data collected for children with a reported food allergy. With this data we are able to differentiate between perceived and convincing food allergies, understand racial and economic differences in food allergy, and understand trends in food allergy diagnosis and testing.  For example, Asian and Black children were more likely to have a convincing history of food allergy, but were less likely to receive a formal diagnosis when compared with White children.”    

The Food Allergy Initiative (FAI), a non-profit founded in 1998 by concerned parents and grandparents and the largest provider of funding for food allergy research, helped fund this study. “FAI was proud to support this important study. It is especially disturbing to see the increasing prevalence and severity of food allergies in this country. Every day, we hear from families who are struggling with the emotional, physical and economic impact of food allergies. That’s why FAI is committed to accelerating the pace of clinical trials that will lead to new therapies and ultimately, a cure,” said Mary Jane Marchisotto, Executive Director of FAI.

Gupta says the next set of studies will focus on understanding observed geographical, racial, and diagnostic trends. “By understanding why some children are affected by food allergy while others are not, we can begin to better focus our efforts on finding a cure.”

Other researchers include:  Elizabeth E. Springston, BA.; Manoj Warrier, MD; Bridget Smith, PhD.; Rajesh Kumar, MD;  Jacqueline A. Pongracic, MD;  and Jane Holl, MD, MPH.​

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