BOTETOURT COUNTY, Va. – More than three million people in the United States are living with peanut allergies. It’s one of the most dangerous allergies, causing more deadly cases of anaphylaxis than any other food.
Now, doctors are working to help one local teen face her allergies head on – by slowly introducing peanuts into her diet through a treatment called oral immunotherapy, or OIT.
Abigail Newman’s family first suspected something was wrong when the 14-year-old was still a toddler. Her mom, Shannon, thought there was a chance Abigail might be allergic to milk after developing a severe cough when drinking milk. At 18 months, a pediatrician ordered an allergy panel and the family found out Abigail was severely allergic to peanuts.
Immediately, they got rid of everything with peanuts, including any food that may contain traces of peanuts or that’s made in a facility that also processes peanuts. That’s when her mom says their journey with a life-threatening allergy began.
“It’s things you wouldn’t even think of,” said Shannon. “M&Ms are cross contaminated, may contain peanuts. Certain cookies and crackers. Breads are a big thing we have to avoid. At restaurants, we have to ask the waiters, we have to ask the managers. I have gone into the back of kitchens to ask if I can read their ingredient list.”
When Shannon heard about a treatment called oral immunotherapy, she said that while it made her nervous to think about feeding her daughter something that has been so dangerous to her for years, she was also encouraged by the potential of no longer worrying about cross contamination.
“They start by ingesting small amounts of peanuts,” she says. “I thought, ‘We have been avoiding this for 12 years and I can’t even imagine her eating this.’”
If successful, the treatment would be life-changing for Abigail, who says her life has revolved around making sure she never comes into contact with peanuts, especially at school.
“One of my friends, anytime she has peanuts, she eats them at another table or in another room,” says Abigail. “Then she goes and washes her hands, she washes out her mouth and all of that and then she comes back and eats with me. Or in my other class, they don’t eat it. They just leave it in their lunchbox and eat other things.”
Over the summer, Abigail and her family decided she would start OIT—working toward a once-impossible goal of getting over her peanut allergy.
There are only about 100 board-certified allergists in the U.S. who perform the treatment. The closest one for the Newman family is in Chapel Hill, N.C., so every two weeks Abigail and her family make the three-hour drive to visit her doctor.
She’s been taking a small dose of peanut protein every single day since June 26, increasing the amount little by little each time she visits her doctor. She started by mixing the peanut protein with Kool-Aid but has recently switched to applesauce or yogurt as her dose continues to get larger and larger.
Two weeks from now, Abigail will eat her first whole peanut. At that point, she will be safe to eat foods that are cross-contaminated with peanuts or may have been made at a facility that also makes peanut products.
“She’ll be able to go out with friends and I won’t have to watch her so closely,” says Shannon. “I won’t have to read every label and it will just be really freeing. We are just so thankful that she has been able to get to this point right now.”
Oral immunotherapy treatment works to desensitize children’s immune system so their allergic reactions are not as severe. Drug companies are currently working to get FDA approval for the treatment.
In all, the treatment is expected to take less than a year to complete.
“At the end, they will challenge her with 26 peanuts,” says Shannon. “Then she will be able to free eat. She will be able to eat a peanut butter cookie if she cares to or a peanut butter pie, whatever she wants to eat at that point after the challenge.”
Abigail says she’s looking forward to tasting her first Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, but is most excited about eating bread at places like Panera and Carrabba’s as well as doughnuts from Krispy Kreme – all food she hasn’t been able to eat before because of the potential for cross contamination.
The change Abigail says she’s most excited about is being able to take a trip she’s always dreamed of, her very first mission trip. Once her therapy is complete this summer, she’ll be traveling to the Bahamas to volunteer at a camp for the deaf.
Abigail says she’s always wanted to go on a mission trip to use her sign language skills, but has never been able to because of her peanut allergy. She says she’s excited for the freedom the oral immunotherapy is giving her and hopes to make other big mission trips as well.
“Now I feel safe eating if I go to Africa,” she says. “[With the peanut allergy] you can’t read whatever they have for you and there are no hospitals around. It makes you feel more safe knowing you’re not going to have to worry about that, you can focus on other things.”
Other than a few minor issues, like an itchy mouth or acid reflux, she says she hasn’t had any major reactions to peanuts as part of her therapy.