MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Baseball games, school lunches and chocolate candy, just a few of the places you can find peanuts. But what is an indulgence for some is a demon for others.
One in every 13 American children have food allergies — most commonly milk, eggs, and nuts. Peanuts, specifically, are a fear in many homes — even a speck can threaten an allergic child’s life.READ MORE: Girl In Very Critical Condition After Being Shot In Head In North Minneapolis
Until now, allergists’ advice is to avoid the nuts and hope people grow out of the allergy. But one Minnesota doctor is approaching food allergies in a way like no other in the state. He says it’s a risk, but he says there’s also a reward.
Destiny Anderson of Hugo is seven years old. Her mother Angie listed her allergies:
“Tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, sunflower, sesame, dairy, cat, dog,” she said.
A sandwich set off her first reaction years ago. Then there was last summer — it started with a toy at a neighbor’s house.
“So all from touching a toy that probably had some peanut residue on it, to eating a carrot led to her going to anaphylactic shot,” Angie said. “I had to use an epi-pen, get her to the emergency room — it was a nightmare.”
Her daughter’s life was in jeopardy, and so was the family’s emotional well-being.
“I was walking around with a constant pit in my stomach, fearful every time I’d feed her that she would die,” Angie said.
So for years, they’ve sought advice from Wayzata allergist Dr. Michael Wexler.
“We see a lot of tree nut allergies, peanut allergies, eggs, milk and so on,” Wexler said.
It’s not clear why his practice is full of kids with allergies. One theory: Children aren’t exposed to enough germs and don’t develop proper immunities.
The cause is unknown, but Dr. Wexler says the effect is clear.
“We’ve had some children who are afraid to go to school, they’re afraid to go to birthday parties, they’re afraid to go to baseball games,” he said.
And that is the story that’s marked the life of this Wayzata preteen, Joseph Sugalski.
“When I was a kid, my brother spilled some peanut butter from a PB sandwich on my cheeks and I burst up in hives,” he said.
And so began a life of avoiding his beloved peanut laden sporting events and a life of eating in.
“Going to any restaurant, you’d have to ask every server, ‘How was this cooked? How was that cooked? What was it cooked next to?'” his mother Ashley said.
But you’ll notice, she and her husband’s fears are spoken in the past tense.
“The mental stress is greatly reduced,” her husband Tony said.
Words similar to the one’s Destiny’s mom now uses: “She can be free now, it’s amazing.”
But that freedom came after a risk.
“It took me at least a year to get my attorney to sign off on this,” Dr. Wexler said.READ MORE: Brooklyn Center Passes Sweeping Public Safety Resolution To Reform Policing
Dr. Wexler is doing something no other allergist in the state of Minnesota is — he’s serving peanuts to patients severely allergic to peanuts.
“We’re training their immune system to tolerate something they were once very allergic to,” he said.
It’s starts in his office with a speck of peanut or ground peanut. Kids drink it in Kool-Aid and eventually work up to spoons full of powder mixed with yogurt or eating peanuts whole at home.
Destiny was his first patient and now ground peanuts are part of her daily diet.
“Twelve peanuts in the morning, 12 at night, so 24 a day,” Angie said.
Joseph has also conquered the program he started in March — he has 12 peanuts each day.
“I don’t have to sit at the peanut table anymore, I get to sit with all my friends,” he said.
“I think it’s miraculous what Dr. Wexler is doing,” His mother Ashley said.
“It’s life changing, in terms of how you have to plan and manage your life,” her husband added.
But the positive feedback is not universal. The program he launched 13 months ago has seen about a 70-80 percent success rate.
“There’s a couple of patients we’ve stopped the program because they developed symptoms,” Dr. Wexler said. “We just couldn’t get beyond a certain level.”
Dr. Wexler’s team’s approach does not go without question. “Oral immunotherapy,” as it’s technically called, has been successful in Europe, but it is not FDA approved. Only around 50 doctors in the US use the technique. Dr. Allan Stillerman of Plymouth is not one of them.
“There’s still very significant areas that need clarification to confirm its effectiveness, to confirm its safety,” he said.
Stillerman calls the technique promising, and is considering working on a study himself, but he says it’s too early to implement and the rewards may be short-lived. He cites a renowned specialist who says oral immunotherapy is not ready for the general public.
“Not everybody maintains the state of tolerance,” he said. “They can lose it.”
That’s something Wexler agrees with, saying it’s not a cure, but a way to build tolerance.
“Right now we are telling the families they should plan on eating the peanuts indefinitely and forever,” he said. “Might that change in the future? Maybe. Hopefully.”
Although it’s not sure-fire, Wexler says he’s convinced, and so are Destiny and her mother. It seems Destiny’s protein-packed future looks bright.
“From touching a toy, to having anaphylaxis, to now possibly being able to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Angie said.
In their house, the peanut code has been cracked.
Some kids who are now peanut tolerant say they don’t even like the taste of peanuts. One thing both allergists say they recommend is introducing children to peanuts at a young age with a doctor’s supervision.
Most kids who are now peanut tolerant say they don’t even like the taste of peanuts, but they sure seem happy they don’t have to be isolated to a peanut table at school. Both Wexler and Stillerman say they want people to introduce babies to peanuts early on, with doctor supervision, to try and avoid this allergy.MORE NEWS: Starting Tuesday, Allina Clinics In Minnesota Will Start Vaccinating 12- To 15-Year-Olds
Wexler plans to do this with other foods, too. Click here to find out more about the program. Since opinions on its safety vary, allergists suggest you do your research.