FeaturesAug/Sep 2012 Issue

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.


Next: Diary of a Worm

Comments (5)

We need to know if the person having helminthology therapy can pass on those little worms to anyone else. Has that been tracked? Since we do not want to go back to having widespread hookworm causing disease, there is good reason for importation of the worms to be banned until this piece is known. And now we have people carryng the worm around again and being possible sources if infection unbeknownst to the rest of us.
We need the follow up story to be done please.

Posted by: Canada comments | November 18, 2014 10:16 AM    Report this comment

I am someone without IgA reactions but lots of IgG reactions. My food reactions have been getting more severe (in particular, extreme asthma attacks) & involves more foods every year. My naturopathic doctor believes my adrenal system is shot. Any idea if helminth therapy would work for me?

Posted by: Unknown | March 6, 2013 6:44 PM    Report this comment

I am the writer of the article and I would point out that Dr. Sidney Baker, who is quoted in the article, has had a very similar experience using helminths to treat EE. He uses TSO, which is legal to bring into the country.

I would also highlight the last several paragraphs of the article (added below), which emphasize that helminth therapy is in the beginning stages of being researched as a treatment for EE.

The article does not endorse helminth therapy but does point out that some people have had success using it, and that physicians in the EE field find it an intriguing area for further study.

Here is an excerpt from the article: A great deal more research is needed before the medical community considers helminth therapy a safe and effective treatment for food allergy. Yet in a field where options are extremely limited, it is cause for hope.

"Helminth therapy is an intriguing therapy for treatment of eosinophilic esophagitis and other allergic diseases. It has shown promise in inflammatory bowel disease and is being studied as a possible treatment of classic peanut allergies," says John Lee, MD, co-director of the Eosinophilic Gastrointestinal Diseases Program at Children's Hospital Boston. "Treatment options for EoE are currently limited to either diet restriction or steroid therapy. If helminth therapy proves to be effective, it will open an exciting new avenue of treatment for this challenging condition."

Posted by: kdscott | July 22, 2012 8:07 AM    Report this comment

This article does not indicate if the child has been scoped again to confirm whether or not the internal damage is still being done by the disease and he only has no noticeable symptoms due to whatever affects the worms are having on his GI tract (if it's just masking the symptoms). The mom is anonymous (no last name), there is no interview with the child's Drs to confirm the information, etc.

If the damage is still being done by the food that he's eating, then is the therapy actually helpful? If a patient winds up with food impactions due to the damage and has to have his esophagus dilated, is it actually helpful?

If it led to a clear scope and will not cause any other damage, then it should be studied. However, if it is just masking the symptoms and he is still sustaining damage from the eosinophilic disorder, then that is not sufficient. This article leads you to believe that it is an effective treatment, but it might not be.

The disease can be managed well by many people, just by food elimination. For many, eliminating some or all of the top allergens are sufficient, and then they can trial those that they eliminated to determine which are the actual culprits. For some (like my son), it can be difficult to pinpoint the trigger foods. My son DID need elemental formula while he did food trials, but it resulted in determining which foods were safe and which were not. He can manage his disease for the rest of his life, just by avoiding his trigger foods (wheat, dairy, egg, soy, citrus fruits, melons, oats, barley and banana). His list is not the norm either. Wheat and dairy are the most common food triggers. Some people react to other foods as well (we are all individuals, so the triggers vary from person to person). He is now a teenager and while he can manage his disease well on his safe diet, he has chosen to use swallowed Flovent to treat it for the time being. He can now eat everything while he is taking the medication, but we know what foods to avoid when he wants/needs to take a break from the medication, or if it ever becomes less effective.

I noted that the article stated bringing the worms into this country is illegal, and I am sure it is illegal for a reason.

Posted by: EosMom | July 9, 2012 8:58 AM    Report this comment

This article is missing the first paragraph...

Posted by: Ligea R | July 7, 2012 10:26 AM    Report this comment

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