The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the lead institute at the National Institutes of Health for food allergy research, is pleased to commemorate Food Allergy Awareness Week from May 9–15, 2010. First established in 1997 by the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), a patient and family advocacy organization, this week is set aside each year to focus public attention on this growing health problem. FAAN’s theme for this year, Respect Every Bite, reminds us of the daily threat faced by people with food allergy, as exposure to even trace amounts of allergenic foods can cause allergic symptoms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that food allergy affects nearly 4 percent of adults and teens and 5 percent of children under the age of 6 years. A recent report by the CDC indicates that the number of people diagnosed with food allergy increased by 18 percent over the last decade, and this highlights the need to help those affected by this disease.
People with food allergy may experience a range of reactions, from mild to severe, after being exposed to foods to which they are allergic. The most severe reaction, called anaphylaxis, can be life-threatening. Each year an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 episodes of food-induced anaphylaxis occur in the United States. The eight most common allergenic foods in the United States are eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, Crustacean shellfish and fish. Currently, there is no way to prevent food allergies or to cure them once they develop. The only protection is to avoid the allergenic food. Even then, accidental exposures do occur, adding to the stress already felt by allergic individuals and their families. There is a tremendous need for strategies that prevent the development of food allergy and for improved ways to diagnose and manage the disease.
NIAID supports clinical trials investigating how to change the body’s immune response so that it does not trigger an allergic reaction to food. One approach under investigation by NIAID's Consortium of Food Allergy Research is oral immunotherapy. People enrolled in these trials consume gradually increasing amounts of the food allergen. The goal is to reduce the immune response to the food, thus increasing an individual’s ability to tolerate larger amounts of the food. Preliminary results from two oral immunotherapy studies — one treating egg allergy and the other peanut allergy — are promising. In both studies oral immunotherapy enabled some of the children who previously could not eat any foods containing egg or peanut without experiencing an allergic reaction, to eat these foods. Because oral immunotherapy can cause a severe allergic reaction, it should only be performed by a trained health professional. Individuals should not try this on their own.
We also support basic and preclinical research in allergy and immunology, including studies that provide a better understanding of the immune system and how food elicits an allergic reaction. In partnership with FAAN and the Food Allergy Initiative, another constituent group, NIAID sponsors exploratory grants in food allergy research to stimulate high-impact, innovative research studies, and to encourage participation of investigators new to the field of food allergy research. This successful program was renewed this year.
This year also marks a significant milestone in food allergy clinical practice. Although food allergy represents a significant public health burden in the United States, no standard clinical recommendations were available to aid health care professionals in diagnosing, treating or managing patients with known or suspected food allergy. Recognizing the need to create such guidelines, NIAID has worked with more than 30 professional organizations, federal agencies and advocacy groups to develop draft Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Food Allergy. In March of 2010, these draft guidelines were made available for public review and comment (see http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/foodallergy/clinical/Pages/default.aspx). We expect to release the final guidelines in the fall of 2010.
We are committed to supporting research to help better understand, prevent and manage food allergies. Through these research efforts, NIAID-funded scientists and clinicians are making significant progress in combating this serious disease that affects millions of children and adults.
Dr. Fauci is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Daniel Rotrosen is director of the Division of Allergy, Immunology and Transplantation at NIAID.
For more information on food allergy visit NIAID’s Food Allergy Web site (http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/foodAllergy/). NIAID conducts and supports research — at NIH, throughout the United States, and worldwide — to study the causes of infectious and immune-mediated diseases, and to develop better means of preventing, diagnosing and treating these illnesses. News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at http://www.niaid.nih.gov.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.
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