For pediatrician Ruchi Gupta, the fight against food allergies is more than a professional preoccupation. Gupta, an associate professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine, had been studying food allergies for three years when she and her husband discovered their 1-year-old daughter’s allergies to eggs, peanuts and tree nuts. It brought her research home.
“It was a really interesting transition for me to be dealing with these families and their trials and tribulations and then have it happen in my own home,” Gupta says. “It really helped me to empathize. I live it, so I completely understand it.”
One of the hardest parts, she admits, was telling her then–5-year-old son that his beloved peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches had to go. To help siblings and other family and friends cope with and understand a food-allergy diagnosis, Gupta wrote The Food Allergy Experience (CreateSpace, 2012), inspired by quality-of-life issues that arise because of the disease. The book includes medical facts about food allergies, as well as anecdotes from families and advice about living with and overcoming the disease. (Proceeds from the sale of the book go to FARE, a food allergy research and education organization.)
The book comes at a time when food allergies are on the rise in the United States. In a 2011 study Gupta showed 5.9 million children in the United States (8 percent) have food allergies. That’s one in every 13 children or about two in every classroom. “What’s even scarier, I think, is that 40 percent of the kids in our study had experienced a life-threatening reaction already in their lives,” Gupta says. “Typically when you think of an allergy, you think of hives or some visible skin reaction, not something that could potentially take your life.”
Exposure to an allergen — often milk, wheat, egg, soy, peanuts, tree nuts or seafood — can result in hives, nausea or wheezing. An estimated 150 children die each year from a severe anaphylactic reaction, which causes a drop in blood pressure, trouble breathing and swelling of the throat.
Gupta will look at the increasing prevalence of food allergies in an upcoming study on possible causes, including the so-called “hygiene hypothesis,” which proposes that our super-clean, bacteria-free living environment interrupts the normal development of the gut flora in the immune system and contributes to the rise in food allergies.
Last summer Gupta published a study that found that population density and environment have an impact on the distribution of food allergies. In urban centers, nearly 10 percent of children have food allergies, compared with just 6 percent in rural areas. Allergies to peanuts and shellfish, for example, are two times more common in urban areas than rural regions. “The big question is: What in the environment is triggering them?” she asks. “A better understanding of environmental factors will help us with prevention efforts.”
Gupta also completed a study last summer on tolerance, and found that more than a quarter of children who had a history of food allergies outgrew their sensitivities, especially in the case of egg and milk. Gupta, an attending physician at the Lurie Children’s Hospital, is also hopeful about the development of immunotherapy for food allergy — a physician-supervised process of introducing a small amount of the allergen to a child in a controlled situation. If the child tolerates it, his or her exposure to the allergen is gradually increased. “It’s exciting,” she says, “to think that there may potentially be a cure down the road for all of us who have children with this disease.”
She is now trying to develop a national registry of food allergy “so we can really understand not only the number of kids who have it but also who is having reactions and how severe they are.” Her big goal is to complete a longitudinal study of food-allergic children over time. “I really think we need to take kids with food allergies and watch them as they grow and see how many outgrow their allergies and what their environments are like.”
Beyond her research, Gupta is partnering with Chicago Public Schools — which now has lifesaving epinephrine auto-injectors in every building — on the management and reporting of food allergies throughout the district. She is also championing the passage of a Senate bill, introduced in 2011 by Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, to incentivize schools nationwide to stock epinephrine auto-injectors and have a food allergy management plan in place.
“We have to yell it out: ‘This could take a child’s life,’ ” Gupta says. “This is something very, very real, and we really need to protect these children.”