A study published the summer of 2011 finds that 8 percent of American children under the age of 18 have one or more food allergies. That means 5.9 million kids across the U.S. are at risk food-allergic reactions. That 8 percent finding is considerably higher than previously known.
Earlier prevalence estimates that have found the range of food allergies as high as 8 percent in children under age 3, but more in the range of 4 percent for older children.
Gwen Smith, Allergic Living magazine’s editor, spoke to Dr. Ruchi Gupta, the lead author of the study, about her findings and what they mean. Her study was published in the journal Pediatrics and funded by the Food Allergy Initiative.
Gwen Smith: In your study you found that 8 percent of children under 18 have food allergies. We’re used to hearing a figure much lower than that for kids over the age of 3 or 4. What do you make of your larger statistic?
Dr. Gupta: It is a large figure, about two kids in every classroom. In practical terms it makes sense, though. I think most parents when they look around their child’s classroom are seeing one or two kids with food allergies, maybe more. I don’t know if it’s a big surprise – since I see it in my own daughter’s classroom and this is true for everyone [parents of patients] that I talk to. I think it’s just getting a good solid number that represents what’s going on in the United States, and that’s what we did.
If you’re wondering if this represents an increase, I don’t really think there’s been a big [recent] one. I know there have been a variety of numbers, there was a report in JACI [Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology] of between 1 and 10 percent, so there is a huge range that has been talked about.
GS: But it gets confusing since, while your number is higher, a government agency not long before pegged the prevalence among older children at just under 4 percent.
[Dr. Gupta explains that methodologies are different and that may partly explain. For instance, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with the estimate of 3.9 percent of children having a food allergy, they were using a wide-ranging questionnaire on all sorts of diseases, with one food allergy question along the lines of: “does your child have a food allergy or digestive disorder in the past year?”]
Dr. Gupta continues: The CDC report was good, every time we get something we have a little bit more information.
GS: So what was the difference with your study?
Dr. Gupta: What we tried to do was a large, nationally representative study asking only about food allergy. That’s why I feel so confident in what we have produced because it was only for food allergy and we did it on a national level. The number that we have of 8 percent is a very solid number. We took into account families that stated that they may have an allergy to a food and we looked at their reactions. We ended up taking out about 2 1/2 percent of the kids who we thought may actually have intolerances and not allergies. We didn’t just go off a ‘yes, my child has a food allergy’ answer or if we had our results would have been closer to 10½ percent.
We thoroughly reviewed the results with an expert panel to make sure that what we were looking at, based on the history the parents gave us, was true food allergy. The study is carefully done and it looks at all food allergy, not a specific food allergy, so I have a lot of confidence in the numbers.
We did ask, not only ‘does your child have a food allergy,’ but also which allergy and, for each food they reported, we went into: who diagnosed it, how was it diagnosed, what reactions have they [the children] had from ingesting the food in the past. It was a detailed survey that a parent had to fill out.
Next: Serious reactions seen in 39% of allergic kids