Families try controversial oral immunotherapy for food allergy

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Doctors have always told people allergic to foods such as peanuts to avoid them at all cost. Now some people are doing the opposite.

Peanuts. Just peanuts. How could they cause heartache, bringing a mother to tears?

"Because nobody understands what we go through. And people think that food allergy is so silly," said Brooke McAtee.

Brooke and Adam McAtee's nine-year-old son, Gavin, is allergic to peanuts. He had a life-threatening reaction at 10 months old. Gavin would have to avoid peanuts and any foods that might contain them. His family poured over every label.

They worried at restaurants and at the ballpark where he could inhale peanut dust. Gavin couldn't even eat birthday cake at a friend's party.

"When I came out, I was like, 'Mom, why can't I be like other kids? Why did God make me this way?'," said Gavin.

"It broke my heart. As a mother, you want to do everything and anything for your child," said McAtee.

She searched online and found Dr. Zach Jacobs of the Center for Allergy and Immunology in Kansas City. Now, Gavin is eating the very thing he'd been told not to eat. He's getting oral immunotherapy or OIT. Patients start with tiny, carefully measured daily doses of peanut flour mixed in food.

Over time, as the doses increase, they switch to whole peanuts. The goal? To desensitize the body so Gavin will no longer have allergic reactions.

"I think the efficacy and safety have already been established through multiple studies," said Dr. Jacobs.

But Dr. Chitra Dinakar of Children's Mercy Hospital disagrees. She says OIT looks promising in clinical trials, but it is not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

"Experts who have conducted this research have expressed concern about the safety issues such as the risk of systemic reactions," said Dr. Dinakar.

"I haven't had anyone go into frank anaphylaxis. I have had one patient that needed epinephrine," said Dr. Jacobs.

Patients keep an epi pen with them, and when they visit every two weeks for an increase in their peanut dose, they wait an hour in case there are side effects. Stomach upset is a common one.

Dr. Dinakar says questions remain about proper dosing and what happens when people stop the therapy.

"It seems like a little premature to offer them to the general public in the clinical arena when you don't know the answers to those questions," she said.

But Dr. Jacobs says FDA testing is turning a food into a drug.

"And then when it's approved, it's gonna cost $6,000 a year through insurance where I'm doing it with just peanut flour, peanuts," he said.

Gavin no longer avoids peanuts or foods that may contain traces. A Kit Kat bar is a treat for the first time in his life.

"I can eat anything pretty much and go to restaurants, movie theaters, go on plane rides and baseball games," he said.

"We're no longer having to watch every single thing," said his mother.

The McAtees say they're getting the first taste of a better life.

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