Desensitisation - An Alternative Treatment

Author: Dr Damien Downing MBBS MSB, President BSEM

Date: DEC 2013

Over the past 30 years we have been living through an epidemic of allergies and autoimmune diseases (and cancers). Our genes cannot have changed enough to account for this; the one thing that could explain all three and which has changed dramatically is our environment; levels of environmental pollution only go up, never down. By the time there is sufficient evidence against an individual pollutant, it is too late for so many people. The current obvious example is bisphenol a, which is very harmful to infants.

How visionary of Amelia Nathan-Hill to set up Action Against Allergy in 1978! I think the Clinical Ecology Group was established the next year, soon after that becoming the British Society for Allergy and Environmental Medicine. I came into the field in 1980, and in 1983 we set up the British Society for Nutritional Medicine. The two societies merged 10 years later to become the British Society for Ecological Medicine, because it had become impossible to separate the strands of allergy, nutrition and toxicity. Dr Stephen Davies coined the phrase, and wrote about, the Nutrient-Toxin Interface; the more pollutants we have to deal with, the more nutrients we use up in doing so.

That’s how we address adverse reactions these days, in what I hope is an integrated, holistic manner. Logically the first step has to be avoiding exposure. As the old saying goes, when you realise you’re in a hole the first thing to do is stop digging. Sometimes of course it takes a certain amount of logic and/or experimentation to work out what needs to be avoided, and sometimes it’s in the internal environment already, and has to be removed. I had a run–in with nickel last year myself (it’s no bad thing for doctors to have a taste of their own medicine now and then).

Sometimes, though, we cannot change either the external or the internal environment enough to make a real difference to the allergy, and then we turn to desensitisation.

If a vaccine is a small injection of something that persuades your body to react to it, a desensitisation is a small dose that stops or reduces your reaction to something. The difference is in firstly the size of the dose, and secondly in what else you put in the injection. Almost all vaccines have adjuvants in them – small doses of substances such as aluminium or mercury or sodium borate which intentionally irritate the immune system and cause it to react, both to them and to the organism. The desensitising shots that we use only contain naturally occurring enzymes such as beta-glucuronidase, and small molecules such as zinc-protamine, at doses designed to “talk down” the body’s exaggerated immune response.

Many years ago when I was a GP we used to do “incremental” desensitisation for hay fever, bee sting reactions etc. The theory was that by starting with a very small dose of the allergen and increasing it over a period of weeks, the body would accept it and leave it alone. It worked sometimes, but there were a handful of deaths reported too, so it was banned in the 1980s. Now a few allergists are doing it again, but only in hospital with every precaution, and emergency measures standing by. I wouldn’t advise it myself. EPD was never subject to any such restriction because there was never a death, or even a severe reaction, associated with it.

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Last revised: 27 November 2017

Next review: 27 November 2020