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Allergy to peanuts could be avoided in most children if they were introduced to peanut-containing foods as infants, a new study suggests. The ground-breaking findings may lead to lower rates of peanut allergies and a new approach for parents hoping to avoid a potentially life-threatening sensitivity in their children.
In a multi-national trial that followed more than 600 babies who were at high risk for developing peanut allergies, researchers found that feeding snacks containing peanut butter reduced by more than 80 percent the likelihood an allergy to peanuts would develop, according to a report published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
"Peanut allergy imposes a huge burden on the population," said Dr. Gideon Lack, a professor and head of the department of pediatric allergy at King’s College London. "If we can make a significant dent into that health burden, it would be really very exciting."
Peanut allergies usually develop in childhood and tend to be lifelong, studies show. In the U.S., approximately three million people report allergies to peanuts, which are legumes, and tree nuts, according to the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) group.
The researchers tested 716 high-risk infants — children with severe eczema and/or a previously diagnosed allergy to eggs — with a skin test for peanut sensitivity and found that 542 showed no signs of allergy, while 98 had a moderate reaction. Another 76 had reactions that were so severe they were excluded from the study.
The 640 children were randomly assigned to one of two groups: either to eat a snack containing peanut butter several days a week or to completely avoid peanuts.
When the children were 5 years old they were tested for sensitivity with an oral dose of peanut protein.
Among those who tested negative on the initial skin test and were given peanut snacks, just 1.9 percent developed an allergy to peanuts, compared to 13.7 percent of those who completely avoided them. Among the children who tested positive on the skin test, just 10.6 percent developed an allergy to peanuts versus 35.3 percent of those who avoided them till age 5.
While the study results were dramatic, any parent should consult a doctor or specialist before exposing an infant to peanuts, Lack said.
“The last thing we want is for parents of young children who may be at risk to start feeding them peanuts without seeking advice from a healthcare professional,” he explained. “What we discovered in our study was a significant subgroup of children who already had positive skin tests to peanut . . . and they are more at risk for reacting already.”
Experts think that the new study will lead to profound changes in dietary guidance for young children. Until recent years, the recommendations were to avoid peanuts in high-risk babies until they were 3 years old, experts note.
“The idea of introducing peanuts early in an infant’s life is really a paradigm shift from what has been considered over the past 10 years or so," said Dr. Amy Stallings, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of pediatric allergy and immunology at the Duke University Medical Center, who is unaffiliated with the new research. “These are really striking results. This data suggests that introducing them earlier could be significantly protective.”
What’s “groundbreaking about this study is that they were able to diminish the frequency of peanut allergies in high-risk children,” said Paul Bryce, a peanut allergy researcher unaffiliated with the new study and an associate professor of medicine-allergy-immunology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Still, Bryce said, it’s important to realize that this study is about preventing peanut allergies.
“It’s not a cure for an existing peanut allergy,” Bryce said.
Dr. Scott Sicherer is cautious in translating the findings into advice for parents.
“What we do not have here is a study about kids without allergies,” said Sicherer, chief of pediatric allergies and immunology at the Kravis Children’s Hospital at Mount Sinai and a researcher at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine. “We can presume eating peanut ‘earlier’ is still a good idea, but this study does not really address that. We just do not know if eating it so soon might backfire for the group not studied.”
Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. She is co-author of "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic” and the recently published “Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry”
This article was originally published Feb. 23, 2015 at 4:40 p.m. ET.