Anaphylaxis in the jungle

TechKnow's Phil Torres takes us inside his own battle with a peanut allergy

I was at a graduation for some students I helped teach in the remote Ecuadorian Amazon when it happened. I was also a four hour canoe ride and eight hour truck ride away from a hospital.

I graciously accepted the homemade chorizo but within 10 seconds of swallowing, it hit. I can only describe it as a nauseous, cringing buzz that goes from my stomach to my head. Then the heat, the swelling, the lethargy, and the need to get it out. And out it goes- I went behind a shed to vomit.

I accidentally ate a peanut, and my body was in full emergency mode. I’m allergic, and I’m not alone, at least not when I’m in the US. Over 3 million Americans share this allergy, with the number of children having a peanut allergy tripling over the last two decades. Doctors call it simply a food allergy epidemic.

Young Phil Torres
Phil Torres at UCLA Medical Center getting the results from an allergy skin test. Doctors use extracts of common allergens to prick the skin and then see if a reaction forms. Phil is definitely allergic to peanuts.

But what amazed me about working the remote areas of both Ecuador and Peru is that allergies were incredibly rare in those communities. In fact in that community in Ecuador, allergies were so rare that no one actually knew what an allergy was. They literally could not comprehend that my body would react negatively to certain food and concluded that I didn’t like the chorizo so much that I vomited it out.

Embarrassing to say the least, but enlightening that something so common in the US is so rare in other areas. But why is that? Many blame the hygiene hypothesis- that children in industrialized countries are so clean that their immune system doesn’t strengthen once they become an adult. But doctors are still unsure- it is likely environmental, but what exactly is the culprit remains a mystery.

The severe peanut reaction has happened to me dozens of times, and it all revolves around my body’s allergy to peanuts. While I try to be vigilant and on the lookout for peanut ingredients, it has been impossible for me to go a year without accidentally ingesting a peanut my whole life.

Doctors are hoping to change that. For TechKnow’s coverage of food allergies, we found doctors who are trying to cure allergies either through immunotherapy or Traditional Chinese Medicine. So there may come a day when I can eat a peanut and not even flinch.

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