This month's Harper's magazine features an article written by Meredith Broussard, called "Everyone's Gone Nuts: The Exaggerated Threat of Food Allergies."
Pretty inflammatory title to any of us with food allergies or the parent of a food allergic child.
So what is this article all about? The author writes that the current "...rash of fatal food allergies is mostly myth, a cultural hysteria cooked up with a few key ingredients: fearful parents in an age of increased anxiety, sensationalist news coverage, and a coterie of well-placed advocates whose dubious science had fed the frenzy."
She goes on to "dismantle" these myths, some of which rang true for me (fearful parents and children) and others that seemed patently wrong (exaggerated numbers of deaths from anaphylactic shock).
I turned to a friend and pediatric allergist Dr. Mike Pistiner to help me sort through fact and fiction.
(Note: Dr. Pistiner's answers include references to information on studies and journals he talks about. A list of these materials is available at the end of this SharePost.)
SLOANE MILLER: Ms. Broussard states that FAAN.org has exaggerated the threat of severe, life threatening food allergies and that they have based their number on one outdated study. Is this true?
DR. MICHAEL PISTINER: According to Broussard, the 150 to 200 deaths and 30,000 episodes of anaphylaxis in the United States each year were based on a 5-year study (1983 to 1987) by Yocum and colleagues in Olmsted County, Minnesota (a population that is similar in demographics to the white American population).
This study was published in the well respected Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in 1999. (Yocum et al. JACI. 1999;104:452)
This was a groundbreaking study. Though it's 20 years old, the information continues to be useful and, for some statistical facts, unmatched. Its uniqueness and usefulness is that all of the medical records (clinic, hospital, ER, etc.) from all of the residents of this county were collected and reviewed, giving the author of the study and his colleagues the rare opportunity to identify even cases of anaphylaxis that were misdiagnosed, mislabeled and would have otherwise not been reported (Weiler. JACI. 1999; 104:271-3).
It is common that researchers and clinicians use the results of studies such as this one to estimate how many people in the nation's population as a whole suffer from a disease. Based on the 2007 population estimated numbers, one could predict that there would be 32,523 cases of food-induced anaphylaxis and 211 related deaths. FAAN and the many reputable investigators who derive numbers from this study are not misrepresenting or exaggerating the statistics, they are using the available data.
SM: Remember the now famous story of a peanut-allergic teen that supposedly died from kissing her boyfriend who had eaten peanuts? The coroner later proved that she died from an asthma attack. (Read the coroner's report.)