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Aug/Sep 2012 Issue
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Fishing for a Cure
A surprising treatment for multiple food allergies
Parents will go to incredible lengths to help their children when they’re sick, so when mainstream medicine fails to ease a child’s suffering, many parents predictably search for answers elsewhere. For youngsters with severe or life threatening food allergies, the mainstream has so far offered few options. Avoiding allergenic food is the only established method of preventing reactions and the enduring possibility of accidental exposure keeps parents constantly vigilant.
As a result, some parents are turning to an emerging treatment for their children—or themselves—called helminth therapy, which takes the notion of alternative medicine to a whole new level. Helminth therapy is a benign moniker for a treatment that’s bound to make some people queasy: Introducing the eggs of parasitic worms (helminths) into the body. The eggs hatch and take up residence in the intestines in the hope that they will modulate a hyperactive immune system.
This is what Carmon, a mother who doesn’t want her last name revealed, is doing for her 6-year-old son, Cole. The little boy has Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EoE), an allergic disease in which there is inflammation and an unusually large number of eosinophils—a type of white blood cell—in the esophagus. Patients with EoE experience a variety of symptoms. Very young children may vomit, have poor weight gain or feeding problems. Young children may vomit, complain of stomach pain or refuse to eat. Older kids may have problems swallowing or get food stuck in their throat or esophagus. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI), about 50 percent of patients with EoE also have seasonal allergies or asthma and many others have eczema or food allergies.
Cole was diagnosed with EoE when he was 14 months old. Problems began months before when he started eating solid food—he had a great deal of difficulty with it, often gagging and vomiting. Medication for suspected reflux was ineffective. Doctors performed an upper endoscopy—a procedure in which a lighted, flexible scope is inserted through the mouth to view the upper gastrointestinal tract—and confirmed that Cole had EoE.
After a long and winding medical journey, Carmon eventually sought care for Cole at the Gastrointestinal Eosinophil Diseases Program at Children’s Hospital Colorado, one of the leading institutions specializing in EoE. Carmon knew that food allergy could be a big part of the equation for people with EoE and for Cole, that turned out to be the case. Testing at Children’s Hospital revealed that there were very few foods to which Cole did not react.
“He was down to 12 foods,” Carmon says.
Cutting out everything but those items helped for a while. But then, Carmon says, “Cole started reacting to those, too.” She believed it was only a matter of time until he would lose them all and be forced to use a feeding tube—a method of delivering liquid nutrition directly to the stomach of people who have difficulty eating. She started researching alternatives and discovered helminth therapy.