Prevalence of peanut allergy in children doubled over a five-year period, according to the study published in the December issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (JACI).
Conducted by the US Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) 13,000 people participated in the study and Drs. Scott H. Sicherer and Hugh A. Sampson, from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
The study, which measured the number of people reporting peanut and/or tree nut (almonds, cashews, walnuts and pecans, for example) allergies, found that prevalence rates in 1997 and 2002 were relatively the same for the population at-large.
However, reported peanut allergy in children showed a strong rise, increasing from 0.4 per cent in 1997 to 0.8 per cent in 2002. Based on 2000 US Census data, FAAN estimates that nearly 600,000 children are now affected by peanut allergy - about 1 in every 125 children.
According to the advocacy group FAAN, subjects reported experiencing severe (79 per cent) and frequent reactions, 66 per cent reported more than five lifetime reactions. Despite this, the study found that only 74 per cent of children and 44 per cent of adults sought medical evaluation.
"This is a worrisome treatment record at a time when more and more children and families are coming face-to-face with the dangers of peanut allergy," said Anne Munoz-Furlong, CEO and founder of FAAN
According to the group, allergies to peanuts - a legume - are responsible for nearly 100 deaths and 15,000 visits to emergency rooms - about half the deaths and emergency room visits caused by all food allergies - each year.
FAAN is currently working with Congress and food manufacturers to adopt clearer ingredient statements, possibly along the lines of incoming EU rules.
In 2004, Congress is expected to take action on the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), which would simplify ingredient statements so they could be understood by a 7-year old.
"Public policy must continue to evolve to create better education about the disease, clearer labelling practices, improved patient care and effective emergency treatment programmes. Such programs - especially where children are involved - are more critical than ever," concluded Munoz-Furlong.