The Sweetest of Medicines
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Brooks Jarrell does not like peanut M&Ms at all — not even the yellow ones. Nonetheless, he eats two of them every night.
“They’re disgusting,”reports this friendly, energetic 10-year-old, whose family lives in Cary. But those M&Ms are also the key to maintaining Brooks's “sustained unresponsiveness” to peanuts after years of living with an acute and life-threatening allergy.
Brooks is part of a growing group of children who suffer from an allergy to peanuts. Current estimates suggest up to 8 percent of children have this allergy – which is about two children in every average-sized school classroom. According to a study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased approximately 50 percent from 1997 to 2011.
Thankfully, physician-scientists at UNC Children’s recently published groundbreaking research that will impact the lives of thousands of children as young as nine months. The researchers developed a new form of oral immunotherapy (OIT) that administered very small amounts of isolated allergens to affected children. They found the new therapy can help most peanut-allergic preschoolers.
Nearly 80 percent of participants in the study were successfully treated with this new approach – allowing them to safely incorporate peanut-containing foods into their diets. Brooks was one of these success stories.
But before his treatment began, Brooks needed a little extra convincing from his parents:
Even more valuable than an expanded diet was reduced anxiety. As vigilant parents, Brooks’s mom, Megan, and dad, Andrew, were constantly on the lookout for peanut-containing food that Brooks could accidentally consume and go into anaphylactic shock. An EpiPen was a constant companion. Keeping Brooks safe from the effects of his allergy posed a number of special challenges to his parents. After all, there’s only so much you can explain to a kindergartener, and even less that you can expect him to remember amidst the many distractions of childhood. “We didn't really emphasize the really scary, potentially fatal aspect of it to Brooks,” Megan explains. “We just said, if you eat it, it will make you sick, and you’ll have to go to the hospital.” Brooks did his best to be on the lookout, but – as Megan points out – “up until this study, he didn't even know what peanuts taste like. So that makes it a lot harder.”
This led to some pretty sad scenes:
Megan points out that potential reactions were ever-present as Brooks started kindergarten. “Food is everywhere!” she observed. “It’s how we in America celebrate. And those little goldfish are everywhere in kid-land.”
Being able to put fears of goldfish – some of which contain traces of tree nuts – behind them has made the Jarrells extremely grateful. “We’re so thankful that Brooks got selected to be in!” says Megan. “And so thankful for how it's changed our lives. We hope that other kids in the same situation can get this kind of support, and that these studies can really make a difference, and that this can become available for all kids who have food allergies.”
Brooks’s story is only one example of how UNC Children’s has established itself as a global leader in treating and preventing food allergies. Led by world-renowned physician scientist Wesley Burks, UNC Children’s continues to develop some the most innovative treatments and publish the most influential research on this issue ever seen. Dr. Burks recently served as a co-author of the National Academy of Medicine’s definitive report on food allergy safety. In this role, he drew upon the expertise of his colleagues at the UNC Food Allergy Initiative.
Now that Brooks’s treatment is complete and a couple M&Ms a day are all that’s needed to keep him in the clear for the foreseeable future, his mom is audibly – and understandably – relieved.
“We’re so thankful that Brooks got selected to be in!
And so thankful for how it’s changed our lives.”
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