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Infant exposure to peanuts may nip allergies

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Posted at 7:43 PM, Feb 23, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-25 10:40:14-05

For kids at risk for allergies, it may be peanut butter and jelly time.

A long-term study published Monday shows that giving at-risk children peanuts early in life may spare them from becoming allergic later on.

That goes against a previous recommendation for them to avoid such foods.

For the study, 640 infants at high risk for allergy (but not yet allergic) were either fed peanuts in their diet or restricted from eating them. They were monitored until they reached 5 years old and then tested for allergy signs.

Children who avoided peanuts were more than three times as likely (16.8 percent) to develop an allergy than those who ate peanuts (4.7 percent).

The results could transform the science of food allergy prevention, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“This is along the lines of tolerizing the body, to get used to something and almost fooling the body to not respond badly because you exposed it early on,” Fauci said.

Peanut allergies — and allergies in general — have been on the rise. About 3 million American children (4 in 100) now have a food allergy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the reasons why aren’t completely understood, Fauci said.

The idea came from comparing Jewish children in Israel, who are exposed to peanuts early on, to Jewish children in the United Kingdom. Despite similar ancestors, the Israeli Jewish children were less likely to be allergic.

While the results are encouraging, Fauci said parents shouldn’t take matters into their own hands until experts have studied it further.

“Wait for the appropriate, knowledgeable people to sit down, look at the data and make decisions about this rather than parents on their own jumping on the bandwagon,” he said.

The study was conducted at King’s College in London and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Gavin Stern is a national digital producer with the Scripps National Desk.