Researching Food Allergies: A Professional Mission Becomes Very Personal
Ruchi S. Gupta, MD, MPH, is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Physician Faculty Scholar. She is an associate professor of pediatrics and director of the maternal and child healthcare program at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and an attending physician at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
When I decided to specialize in pediatrics after medical school, I did it for my love of children and the prospect of a career spent improving their lives and those of their families. Following my pediatric training, I completed a special fellowship in Boston to gain the research skills that would help me make a broader impact. Completion of this training opened the door for me to work with a world-renowned expert in pediatric asthma in Chicago. During this time, I met a family with two children with severe food allergy. This family would influence my work and my career dramatically. Their interest, with its deep commitment and personal stories, became my passion.
As I started conducting research in food allergy, I realized how little we know compared to other childhood diseases like asthma. There were so many unanswered questions. At that point, it was not even clear how many children were affected by food allergy or how severe it was. To address this, my research team and I conducted a comprehensive study of 50,000 families all over the U.S. and found that food allergy impacts 8 percent of the nation’s children, corresponding to two children in every classroom or almost six million children in the country.
Almost 40 percent of children with food allergy had already experienced a severe life threatening reaction. Food allergy reactions can be mild with skin symptoms such as hives, but can also cause throat closing, trouble breathing or a drop in blood pressure, and if not managed immediately can cause death. Our data found that the most common food allergy was to peanut, followed by milk and then shellfish. Other common allergens included tree nut, fin fish, egg, soy and wheat.
We then went on to look at how food allergy is being diagnosed and prevalence and severity trends based on where you live. We also examined characteristics of children who develop tolerance or “grow out of” their food allergy. We are currently working to answer the “why” question: Why do so many children have food allergy? Is it that as a society, we have become so clean that our immune systems are fighting the wrong things?
While conducting my research, I spent time with many parents of children with food allergy. I was deeply moved by the impact food allergy has on so many children and their families. Since food is a part of almost everything we do, I came to understand that families were constantly affected and rarely able to let their guard down. Keeping kids safe from the allergenic food was the mission. Safe from food—that sounds so strange.
This is why food allergy became such an all-encompassing issue. Care was needed everywhere a child was—at home, school, camp, friends’ homes, families’ homes, vacations, restaurants…everywhere. We published papers describing food allergy knowledge and attitudes among the general public and parents of kids with food allergy. We also published a quality-of-life study discussing the challenges of managing a food allergy within the unique context of a growing child’s social world.
Little did I know that I would soon join the group of families having a child with food allergy. After working in this field for a few years, my daughter was born and soon diagnosed with egg, peanut, and tree nut allergies. My older son, however, was allergy-free. I now experience first-hand everything parents told me. My kids live different lives. My son is worry-free when eating. On the other hand, we work hard to keep my daughter safe at school, during sports, at camp, and when she is with her friends or extended family. I started with the perspective of a physician and researcher, and have now added the personal experience and feelings of a parent whose child has food allergies.
As I was learning to be a parent of a child with food allergy, I was asked to speak at a support group meeting on our survey of the knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs surrounding food allergy among parents of children with food allergy. I presented some of the stories and quotes parents had written in the comment sections of our surveys about their challenges with food allergy at the support group meeting, and the response was overwhelming. All the parents empathized with the stories and asked if I could provide the quotes to them in a book to help them and others understand all aspects of life with a food-allergic child.
In the last two years, we have gathered enough additional facts, quotes, tips, comics and resources from parents, doctors and teachers to compile a new book titled “The Food Allergy Experience.” The intention of this book is to help families living with food allergy and everyone else involved in a child’s life better understand what that child’s day-to-day world is like and what it takes to keep him or her safe. You can learn more about the book at www.foodallergyexperience.com.
My daughter, who happens to have food allergies, is amazing, and our life is beautiful with her. With the support of families and the hard work of researchers, I believe we will have a cure in the near future. Until then, the goal is to increase knowledge, understanding, and support among everyone who cares for these children.