Many medical papers nowadays have such complex statistics that not one in a hundred doctors understands them fully, and the rest have merely to hope or take it on trust that the authors’ conclusions really do follow from their data. I am afraid I hold to the rather crude view that, if results involving large numbers of patients need involved and sophisticated statistical manipulation to yield a positive outcome, they probably are not very important clinically, however statistically significant they may be. Clear-cut results are not very common these days.
I therefore rejoiced to see in a recent edition of the Lancet the report of an experiment so conclusive that it hardly needed statistical confirmation to prove it. The experiment was a double-blind trial of the desensitization of children with an allergy to peanuts by means of oral immunotherapy (OIT).
Ninety-nine children aged between 7 and 12 with proven allergy to peanuts were divided into two groups: those who, unbeknown to them, received small but increasing doses of peanut protein mixed into their food over a period of six months, and those who did not. At the end of that period, 62 percent of the treated group, but none of the untreated, tolerated a challenge of 1400 milligrams of peanut allergy. The children who had had the OIT were 25 times less sensitive than those who had not. When the control group who had not had it were given it, they too became less sensitive.
The authors also demonstrated that the quality of life of the desensitized children improved because they became less anxious that any food might ambush them, as it were, and cause an allergic reaction. Anyone who has seen an allergic reaction to peanuts (or other nuts) will understand this. Since the number of food products that bear the warning “may contain peanuts” is ever-increasing – peanuts seem almost as ubiquitous in our environment as rock music – the world must appear a dangerous place to those with the allergy.