New immunization treatment tackles peanut allergies

Health care specialists at St. Joseph's Health Care London have introduced a new Food Allergy Clinic. It’s the first program in southwestern Ontario that helps increase a patient’s immunity to an allergen – and more specifically to peanuts.

Novel approach developed by specialists at St. Joseph's Hospital in London

St. Joseph’s Health Care in London, Ont.

Katherine Keigan-Labrie vividly remembers the face of her 12-year-old son after he was exposed to peanut butter for the first time as a toddler.

"I was so worried. I couldn't even recognize him," she said. "His eyes closed and his mouth and lips were swollen."

The fearful mother of four vowed to protect her son from the possibility of another life-threatening reaction from his newly discovered allergy. Keigan-Labrie, who didn't leave the house without an Epipen, even "felt like putting him in a plastic bubble."

So, why has he been eating peanuts for the last 10 months?

He's one of 20 children seeking immunization treatment through a program at St. Joseph's Health Care London's newest food allergy clinic.

It's the first program in southern Ontario that helps increase a patient's immunity to an allergen – and more specifically, to peanuts.

 "We're treating the peanut allergy so patients don't have to live life with the extreme fear of having a life threatening reaction to eating peanut," said Dr. Harold Kim, who's the medical director of the allergy and immunology program at the hospital.

Dr. Kim initially began the program in his private clinic in Kitchener and expanded into London to practice increasing allergen dosages under stricter supervision.
Dr. Harold Kim is an immunology practising in London and Kitchener (Rebecca Zandbergen/ CBC News )

Treating peanut allergies with peanuts

Patients with peanut sensitivities or allergies are offered a small dosage of peanut in the form of flour every day. The dosage is then increased on a monthly basis until the patient can eat an entire peanut, which usually takes up to a year.

After the first year, a patient is advised to continue eating a peanut every day in order to maintain immunity.

"We know the quality of life of patients is improved when they successfully are desensitized. They are much more relaxed because they know a tiny amount of peanut is not going to cause a reaction."

He said the progress has been positive and very few patients have suffered a severe reaction with the most common side effect being stomach pains.

Keigan-Labrie's son still has a few months to go until he can eat a whole peanut.

Regardless, she's happy that her family doesn't have to live in fear anymore.

"My son doesn't seem as worried anymore… He feels so empowered."