No more peanut problems: New Topeka program treats peanut allergies

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - There was a time eight-year-old Mary Jane Sachs envied her sister's snacks.

"My sister's been eating peanuts and Reese's and it's made me want them," she said.

Mary Jane is allergic to peanuts. As careful as her family was, peanuts are lurking everywhere.

Her mom, Courtney, recalls an incident two years ago.

"She was going through the buffet and just ended up picking up something off the buffet and had an allergic reaction to it," Courtney said. "As a mom, it was frightening as she starts vomiting, talking about can't breath, she describes a scratchy throat, her lips itch."

Up to one percent of people have a peanut allergy - and some reactions can be life-threatening. The Sachs' close calls brought them to Cotton O'Neil Allergist Dr. Bilal Khan.

"What the immune system does is that it recognizes the protein in the peanut as an infection or as something that is not good for the body, so it reacts to it," Dr. Khan explained.

Last summer, Dr. Khan started offering the Food Allergy Treatment Program. He uses a therapy that aims to sneak up on the immune system, by giving the same protein found in peanuts in small amounts.

Patients start with a liquid form, gradually working up to a powder, then the real thing.

"We increase the dose bit by bit. It has to be done in a controlled setting because unfortunately reactions can happen," Dr. Khan said.

The process takes several months, and isn't always easy.

"I was kinda scared sometimes," Mary Jane admits.

Dr. Khan says the reaction is understandable, especially for older patients.

"Imagine that for 20, 30 years somebody has said, 'Don't touch the peanut. Run away whenever you seee a peanut.' Then I come in and say, 'Hey, let's eat a peanut.' It's very hard to convince the subconscious mind to get over the aversion," he said.

Still, Dr. Khan says it's worth it. He says he knows the struggles, fear and hardships a peanut allergy can create in a family, since his own son has it.

"You get quality of your life back," he said. "You stop being scared of the environment around you, and that's a big, big value."

Courtney said Mary Jane battled through tough moments in her seven months of treatment to finish strong.

"She wanted to no longer fear peanuts," she said.

It's not a cure. While there's no limit to what she can have, Mary Jane still must eat a certain minimum amount of peanuts each day to keep the immune system stimulated.

But she's not minding, as she discovers tastes she once shunned.

"I had a Snickers once - it was a Snickers ice cream bar. I tried a Butterfinger at my friend's house," Mary Jane says. "I've had chocolate peanut butter, regular peanut butter and white peanut butter."

Courtney says having Mary Jane able to tolerate peanuts is a weight off everyone's shoulders, plus, it's nice to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without worry.

"It just opens up a whole new world of things she can eat," Courtney said.

There's also a social benefit to the treatment. Studies show children with food allergies are twice as likely to be bullied.

This therapy only applies to peanut allergies. It does not work for tree nut allergies.

You can find out about Cotton O'Neil's Food Allergy Treatment Program by calling 785-354-9591 or 785-354-1129 and ask for Kelli.