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Allergy Fix

Childhood food allergies have more than tripled in the last twenty years. New research is testing old assumptions about how to treat them. Can they find an allergy fix?
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2.5 million Canadians, 1 in 13, have a significant food allergy.

If you’ve been to a children’s birthday party lately, chances are at least one of the little guests had a portable needle loaded with epinephrine. It’s standard equipment for a growing generation of highly allergic North American kids: more than three times as many children have food allergies now than twenty years ago. And one out of every three children is now allergic to foods, animals, or plants. Something puzzling, and frightening, is going on with our immune systems.

The Allergy Fix travels across Canada and to the US, the UK and Germany to investigate why allergies are on the rise – and what’s being done about it. 

Clues to the increase may be found on farms, because kids growing up on dairy farms have far fewer allergies than city kids. It’s called “the farming effect”, after a German study revealed farm kids had only half the allergies of urban kids. It seems that without the kinds of bacteria that have traditionally lived around us and within us for hundreds of thousands of years, our immune systems have become confused.

The Allergy Fix includes exclusive and rare access to an Amish farming community in Indiana who have only half the allergy rate of other farm families, perhaps because their lives are a snapshot of the past: a lifestyle that was prevalent two hundred years ago.

Since discovering the germ theory of disease, we have cleaned up our world. We’ve sanitized our urban environment and mostly defeated bacteria with antibiotics. But at what cost? The antibiotics may be killing off microbes in our gut that work symbiotically with our immune system. When the Berlin Wall came down, German scientists were shocked to find that people in heavily industrialized, polluted Eastern Germany had fewer allergies than in cleaner, sanitized Western Germany. A theory known as “the hygiene hypothesis” suggests that exposure to certain germs actually protects our system and lowers our allergy risk.

So what can science and medicine do to reverse the trend? Allergists are attempting to 'desensitize' kids to allergenic foods like peanuts and milk by starting allergic kids off with tiny doses of the offending food, and gradually increasing them until the immune system is trained to accept it, or at least make exposure to small amounts of those foods less dangerous. These procedures can be scary stuff for parents and children who know their allergies may cause severe, even life-threatening, reactions.

Some scientists are going even further and deliberately experimenting with giving themselves parasitic worms, since studies have shown that people who have worms also have fewer allergies. Like the “good” bacteria in our gut, this approach is part of what has been coined “the old friends hypothesis”.

The Allergy Fix delves into the latest attempts to fix the allergy epidemic, and highlights some innovative, surprising medical avenues that are sparking hope.

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