The risk of allergy was cut by more than 80%, after a trial involving peanut products and 628 babies.
Lead researcher Professor Gideon Lack said the study offered help to millions of children affected by allergic reactions to the nut. “Peanut allergy affects 1-in-50 children,” Lack told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“If we can make a dent in that, it will be of great benefit. And we hope to translate it into public health policy.”
‘Public health policy’
The research conducted at King’s College, London included babies as young as four months who had developed the skin condition eczema; regarded as an early warning sign of allergies.
Children who have no allergic reaction to peanuts or displayed a mild response were identified by skin-prick tests.
The results revealed 14 out of 100 children would normally develop an allergy by the age of five. But of the group exposed to peanut products at a young age, only two out of every 100 went on to develop an allergy – a drop of 86%.
Allergy rates among children who were already sensitive to peanuts fell from 35% to 11%.
Researchers concluded: “The early introduction of peanuts significantly decreased the frequency of the development of peanut allergy among children at high risk for this allergy and modulated immune responses to peanuts.”
Lack said: “We realise this goes contrary to previous advice. But it is essential we direct our attention to this group of infants and stem this tide of rising peanut allergy.”
‘Rising tide of peanut allergy’
More research was needed to establish whether children exposed to peanuts at an early age maintained that tolerance in the absence of further exposure to peanut products, he said. Researchers are now focusing on discovering the peanut tolerance status of five-year olds who eat no peanuts for a whole year.
Latest peanut research
“We realise this goes contrary to previous advice. But it is essential we direct our attention to this group of infants and stem this tide of rising peanut allergy.”
Professor Gideon Lack
But the presence study offered such compelling results that new guidelines should be forthcoming soon, according to the journal.
More information about the study is available here.
The National Health Service Choices website advised parents: “Avoid giving your child peanuts and foods containing peanuts before the age of six months. Foods containing peanuts include peanut butter, peanut (groundnut) oil and some snacks. Don't give whole peanuts or nuts to children under five years old because they could choke on them.”
Families with children at risk of nut allergy were told to seek medical advice.
Meanwhile, details of a new therapy for children already allergic to peanuts was published in The Lancet last month. It suggested feeding peanut protein in progressively larger amounts could significantly boost their tolerance to the nut. Dr Pamela Ewan of Cambridge University Hospitals said the study revealed “huge benefits and was a great success”.