If you’ve been to a children’s birthday party lately, chances are at least one of the little guests had an Epi-Pen. It’s standard equipment for a growing generation of highly allergic North American kids. Something puzzling, and frightening, is going on with our immune systems.
The Allergy Fix traveled across Canada as well as visiting the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany to investigate why allergies are on the rise – and what’s being done about it.
Clues to the increase may be found on farms. When the Berlin Wall came down, German scientists were shocked to find that people in heavily industrialized, polluted Eastern Germany had fewer allergies than in cleaner, sanitized Western Germany. A theory known as “the hygiene hypothesis” suggests that exposure to certain germs actually protects our system and lowers our allergy risk. So what can science and medicine do to reverse the trend? Allergists are attempting to ‘desensitize’ kids to allergenic foods like peanuts and milk by starting allergic kids off with tiny doses of the offending food, and gradually increasing them until the immune system is trained to accept it, or at least make exposure to small amounts of those foods less dangerous. These procedures can be scary stuff for parents and children who know their allergies may cause severe, even life-threatening, reactions. Some scientists are going even further and deliberately experimenting with giving themselves parasitic worms, since studies have shown that people who have worms also have fewer allergies. Like the “good” bacteria in our gut, this approach is part of what has been coined “the old friends hypothesis”..
The Allergy Fix includes exclusive and rare access to an Amish farming community in Indiana who have only half the allergy rate of other farm families, perhaps because their lives are a snapshot of the past: a lifestyle that was prevalent two hundred years ago. Since discovering the germ theory of disease, we have cleaned up our world. We’ve sanitized our urban environment and mostly defeated bacteria with antibiotics. But at what cost? The antibiotics may be killing off microbes in our gut that work symbiotically with our immune system.
Produced by Vancouver-based Dreamfilm Productions and narrated by David Suzuki, The Allergy Fix is directed by Bruce Mohun, produced by Sue Ridout, and written by Bruce Mohun & Helen Slinger. Mohun is a Vancouver-based science journalist and television director who has produced, directed, hosted and written hundreds of hours of TV, including Hiding From the Wind; Deciphering Dyslexia; and The Leading Edge. His most recent documentaries for CBC-TV’s The Nature of Things (The Downside of High; Programmed to be Fat) have won both the Gold and Silver World Medals at the New York Festivals. His project on global warming, Global Warning: Canada’s Changing Climate, was screened at the New York Film Festival, and the Image and Science Film Festival in Paris. He has been honoured with both the Science Council of British Columbia`s Eve Savory Award for Science Communication, and the Canadian Federation of Biological Societies’ J. Gordin Kaplan Award for Science Communication.
The Allergy Fix airs on CBC-TV`s The Nature of Thingsthis Thursday, February 27 at 7 p.m. Eastern Time Zone (7:30 p.m. NT). It will be given encore broadcasts on CBC News Network, Saturday, March 1 at 7 p.m. and on CBC-TV on Sunday, March 2 at 2 pm and on Monday, March 3 at 11 a.m.