An allergist in Dallas is using a new, rigorous and potentially risky treatment to help patients tolerate the very foods that make them sick.
"We fool the body's allergy and immune system by kind of sneaking up on it. We give very, very teeny doses of the food that causes the problem and gradually increase over time," is how Dr. Richard Wasserman described his food desensitization program. "This is an approach that has been done for one thing or another for a hundred years. It just hasn't been done for foods very often, and developing the protocol we use has allowed us to make a difference and take care of a lot more children."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the number of children with food allergies at three million. Eggs, milk and peanuts are the primary culprits.
"If someone were to touch her with peanut hands or kiss her with peanut lips, she would turn red and splotchy and have an allergic reaction," explained Joy Harvey, the mother of a 5-year-old girl who started Wasserman's program in January 2010.
"When they brought out, they actually brought out the precious little peanut on the tray, I think I had more of a reaction than she did," recalled Harvey. "I was like, 'What's gonna happen?' but it's been so gradual. We started with tiny, tiny amounts so that by the time we got to one whole peanut and now up to six, it's amazing. It's a blessing."
"I don't really worry when we move up a dose, even though, he's getting a significant amount, because we've had so much success," said Caroline Feathers whose 10-year-old son is in treatment for a milk allergy. "Even from infant baby formula, he showed reactions. So, he's pretty much had to avoid milk all his life."
So far, Wasserman had had 50 patients in the food desensitization program. Not all have had the kind of success seen in Harvey's and Feather's children.
"Sometimes people do have problems and can't tolerate the food even with this procedure," Wasserman said. "This is a demanding thing for a patient and family."
Wasserman admits there are allergists who think this treatment is too risky and exposes children to too much potential harm. He insists his staff take extraordinary precautions to keep patients safe.
"This is the most rewarding thing I've done in medicine in more than 30 years. It really changes people's lives," he said.
Wasserman's program costs about $5,000 if all goes smoothly. Some insurance companies do pay for it.