Allergies on the increase

peanutsAbout 2.2 million school-aged children, or 4 percent of U.S. students, have food allergies, and 3.3 million Americans of all ages are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.

But that number is rising rapidly. According to one study, reports FAAN, peanut allergies among young children doubled between 1997 and 2002.

Such allergies often carry the risk of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction that can cause someone to stop breathing.

Allergist Jerry Shier says that he knows of no proven cause for the rise in food allergies in recent years, but says the best explanation for the increase is the "hygiene hypothesis."

With home environments so clean, young children are not exposed to bacteria and exotoxins that would strengthen immune systems, says Shier, a physician at the Rockville and Silver Spring-based Asthma and Allergy Center and an assistant clinical professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine.

That means schools are dealing with a problem that wasn't even on their radar screen 15-20 years ago, but they have quickly adapted.

"We deal with it the best we can," says Madeline Rothbard, head of school at the kindergarten-seventh grade Hebrew Day Institute in Silver Spring.

Rothbard points out that HDI is located on the premises of a synagogue, Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim, which means that school officials can't completely control the environment.

"That's exactly why we have the EpiPens," she says, referring to the device that administers epinephrine, the emergency treatment for anaphylaxis.

"We do a lot of preventative work," she says, "[but we] can't have anything 100 percent."

source - Washington Jewish Week