PEANUT clinics are set to be used by Perth researchers in an attempt to cut rising rates of peanut allergy.
In what is likely to be a relief for Western Australian families, including Yanchep and Gingin families who have infants with an increased risk of developing a peanut allergy about 400 infants will be selected for a trial.
Infants can have an increased risk of developing peanut allergy if they have eczema, are allergic to eggs or have a strong family history of allergies.
The researchers want to know whether providing a setting where parents can feel safe introducing their children to peanuts, could lead to greater numbers of children receiving timely exposure to peanut products.
Michael O’Sullivan, a consultant immunologist with Princess Margaret and Fiona Stanley hospitals who is heading the study, said early exposure to peanut products was known to reduce the risk of developing peanut allergy, with current guidelines recommending that children at high risk of developing peanut allergy be exposed from as early as four months.
Dr O’Sullivan said that parental apprehension at introducing peanuts – while understandable – was delaying exposure, with only 20 per cent of children at high risk of developing peanut allergy being exposed within the optimal timeframe.
“Severe allergic reactions are extremely rare – even among high-risk children – but this doesn’t stop parents from worrying that their child will have a reaction with their first exposure,” he said.
“The number of ‘peanut picnics’ we see being held outside hospital emergency departments demonstrates the level of anxiety.”
Dr O’Sullivan said the peanut clinics would enable small groups of parents at a time to introduce their children to peanut products in a clinically supported setting.
He said children needed continued exposure to peanut products to prevent the development of peanut allergy.
A child who did not react on initial exposure was unlikely to react on subsequent exposures provided they continued to eat peanut products regularly at home (two to three times per week).
Dr O’Sullivan and his co-researchers hope to recruit about 400 infants, identified as being at high risk of developing a peanut allergy, for their intervention which would be part of a controlled trial.
The researchers will compare the proportion of infants regularly eating peanut by 12 months of age in the intervention group (those invited to the peanut clinics) with rates of regular peanut consumption among infants of similar high risk, but not offered the intervention.
They will also compare the incidence of peanut allergy in the two groups.
Health Minister John Day said peanut allergy was the most common cause of severe food allergy and was extremely distressing and potentially deadly.
“It is thought to affect about three per cent of children and, with rates of peanut allergy rising steadily over the past 20 years, we hope this project will help turn the tide.
“If the intervention proves effective, peanut clinics could be introduced across a variety of settings including GP practices and child health clinics.
“This would reduce trauma, improve outcomes for young families and deliver estimated healthcare savings of more than $2.4 million a year.’’