Hold that needle: New oral therapy could help milk allergy sufferers

By G.J. Honda

When our youngest daughter was born, we spent the first week of her life trying to find nourishment for her that didn’t upset her stomach. We tried everything from breast-feeding to regular formula and soy. Nothing helped. Finally the doctor told us that our daughter would need to be put on Nutramigen. We had never heard of Nutramigen before, but we quickly learned it was for infants with a hypoallergenic reaction to other milk products such as the soy and regular formula.

Allergies are developed when an individual’s immune system organizes an attack on a foreign molecule that it has predetermined to be a danger to the body. This reaction is what happens when a person develops hay fever or allergies to some foods, including milk products.

Allergies are a major health problem in the United States. It is estimated that one in five people suffers from some form of allergy. And 3 percent of infants suffer specifically from milk allergies. These allergies are frequently more than a discomfort. They can be life-threatening, causing those who suffer with allergies to miss more work. There is also a high cost for doctor visits and medicinal relief.

For example, for the first five years after our daughter’s birth, we had to buy her expensive formulas and foods. Nutramigen, the only non-allergy infant formula available at the time, cost close to $20 for a powdered 12.5-ounce can.

In the past, those with allergies have been told that there is no permanent cure for them.

However, more recently immunotherapy has shown that 75 percent of those who suffer with extreme cases of hay fever are finding their allergy symptoms alleviated. Immunotherapy is a series of injections of increasingly larger amounts of the allergen until the person’s body system becomes desensitized to the allergen and his body no longer overreacts to it.

Along this line, a study at John Hopkins Children’s Center, in conjunction with Duke University, suggests that placing small portions of milk protein under the tongues of children who suffer from milk allergies can assist those children in overcoming their sensitivities. They call this sublingual immune therapy (SLIT). The idea of SLIT is that given small-portion sizes of milk slowly increased over time, children’s bodies gradually are able to make needed changes that allow them to tolerate milk products once more. This appears to be immunotherapy without injections.

Apparently, 80 percent of children will outgrow their sensitivities by the age of 16, even if left untreated. But 16 years is a long time to wait for relief. The intervening expenses and health issues may be debilitating. But even with the SLIT treatment there are the problems and expenses of regular doctor visits. It may not be worth the time and money spent if they are going to “outgrow” their allergies on their own. But if SLIT works, there is the peace of mind that comes with knowing our children will not have to worry about accidental ingestion of milk or milk products at a birthday party where they serve ice cream. Is there such a thing as a birthday party where they don’t serve ice cream? This can be liberating.

But what would be even more comforting is if it were discovered that all vaccines could be given under the tongue. No more shots! Regardless of the choices surrounding allergy treatments, allergies are a common health problem.

We are thankful that our daughter can be numbered among the 80 percent of those children who outgrow their intolerance of milk before reaching the age of 16.

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Simply Science guest columnist G.J. Honda wrote this column as part of a special topics class in popular science writing at Mesa State College.


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