An alarming one in every 13 kids in America has a food allergy, meaning the slightest contact with certain foods can be life-threatening, but there's new hope for kids with allergies thanks to a radical new treatment. NBC's Kristen Dahlgren reports.
There was a time not long ago when even the tiniest drop of whipped cream could have killed 10-year-old Tessa Grosso. She was allergic to milk, wheat, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts and shellfish. Her food allergies were severe and they made her feel different.
“Some people actually teased me, which is really weird because, like, there isn't really something different except I just can't eat something,” Tessa tells TODAY's Kristen Dahlgren.
Tessa wasn’t even 2 when spilled milk sent her into anaphylactic shock. Despite extraordinary vigilance, she had two more life-threatening reactions, and they took a physical and an emotional toll. Tessa had panic attacks, did not want to leave home and had even stopped eating, her mother said.
“It was awful,” her mother, Kim Yates Grosso, told Dahlgren. “When you process the whole thing you walk out and think, ‘My God, if I wasn't there and if I were five minutes later she would have been dead.’"
Grosso and her husband, Andy, tried to do something about it. The Northern California couple found a doctor working on a treatment called oral immunotherapy, which would be used to try to knock out most of Tessa’s food allergies at once, by desensitizing her to those foods. In just four months last year, the experimental regimen, administered as part of a clinical trial, had worked.
Tessa, under the care of Dr. Kari Nadeau, a pediatric allergy and immunology specialist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., had become the world’s first person to be desensitized to more than one allergen at the same time, according to The New York Times Magazine, which featured the breakthrough in a March 10 cover story.
The magazine described Tessa’s treatment, which involved taking a powerful drug that suppresses allergic reactions and consuming a daily dose of small amounts of the foods she was allergic to. Her parents monitored her for two hours each night, and the doses were gradually increased in the hospital.
Tessa was nervous at first to start the trial.
“The first time my mom and I were walking in I actually said to her, ‘Mom, if I die, it's all your fault,’" she said.
The author of the magazine article, Melanie Thernstrom, had consulted with Nadeau about her own son’s food allergies after seeing him almost die. He began treatment last March.
“This treatment is really amazing,” Thernstrom said on TODAY. “Dr. Nadeau doesn't use the word ‘cure’ because she's a scientist and she's very careful.
“They use the word ‘desensitizing’ the child and having them ‘tolerate’ the food,” Thernstrom said. “But the fact is, from a parent point of view, it is a cure. Your child is eating the food and as long as your child eats the food every day, they're done with their allergies.”
There are, however, required daily maintenance doses so that patients do not regain the allergy, the magazine notes. Nadeau told the magazine that sensitivity can return if someone is off the maintenance doses for three days.
Tessa began the treatment in January 2012, at age 9 and had her last dose on May 4, according to the magazine. Several hours after eating, nothing bad happened, and her friends and relatives went out to celebrate. Tessa had her first taste of ice cream, the magazine said, and she started to have a more positive outlook.
“The biggest change is that I don't have to be scared anymore and I don't have as much anxiety,” Tessa said on TODAY. “And I can just be a normal kid.”
Find information on enrolling in similar trials here:
Dr. Kari Nadeau of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital talks about treatment methods for people who suffer from multiple food allergies.