Nut fears simply nutty says expert

MICHELLE ROBINSON
Last updated 05:00 14/07/2013

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A US academic has sparked a storm after suggesting a peanut allergy "epidemic" is in fact a "peanut panic".

But some New Zealand experts have hit back, saying the risk of serious reactions to peanuts is real and it is only reasonable to have safeguards such as banning peanut products from school and kindergarten lunchboxes.

Princeton University sociologist Miranda Waggoner, writing in the journal Social Science and Medicine, points out that peanut allergies are half as common as seafood allergies and rarely fatal. She says the apparent rise of the allergy in recent decades may, in fact, be due to increased vigilance by parents in response to hype in the media and society.

She says as few as 1 per cent of North American and British children have peanut allergies.

Kids First in Christchurch is among kindergartens that impose nut bans, covering most of its facilities, and staff are trained to use an adrenaline EpiPen in case of emergency.

Taupo mother Anna Winn said playing down peanut allergy belittled her situation. Her son Harrison is unable to share food in case of a severe reaction. The five-year-old was diagnosed with a peanut allergy as a baby, which causes him to break out in welts.

"If there's a nut in the same room he's fine but I wouldn't want him touching peanut butter," Winn said.

"We were told the first reaction wouldn't be bad but the second could be life-threatening.

Auckland immunologist Rohan Ameratunga criticised Waggoner's study as "selective". He said her subtext was that allergy specialists conspired with worried parents and support groups to create an "epidemic". Food allergy diagnosis had improved in the past two decades.

It was true studies based on self-reported allergy overestimated its prevalence but food-allergy deaths were actually under-reported as many were tagged as asthma deaths, he said.

Allergy New Zealand health advisor Penny Jorgensen said peanut allergy had become highly visible because it was one of the three main childhood food allergies.

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