Jalen Eskride is a lot like many other 8-year-olds with a hearty appetite for videogames. But when it comes to food, he's anything but typical.
French fries were on the menu one night, but that's it. Jalen won't be eating anything else, not because he doesn't want to but because he can't.
"I have a lot of food allergies, and I really can't name them all," said Jalen.
Jalen has a complicated disorder called eosinophilic esophagitis, referred to as EE or EOE.
"It is a phenomena that we seem to be recognizing more these days. We think that it's increased in both adults and kids," said Dr. Mary Kay Tobin, allergist/Immunologist, Rush University Medical Center.
Tobin says EE is usually discovered when a person starts having trouble swallowing while eating. In Jalen's situation, it was a penny that lead to a diagnosis. It got stuck in his throat when he accidentally swallowed it. When doctors went in to remove it, they discovered the penny was stuck because his esophagus was inflamed.
"And this began our odyssey of EE," said Michele Eskridge, mother.
EE almost always involves intense inflammation of the esophagus. That's the part of the body connecting the throat and stomach. What appears to happen is a large number of white blood cells accumulate in the esophagus causing scarring and thickening. Researchers believe this is an allergic reaction to either something in the air or connected to food. What's most shocking is that most of these patients turn out to be allergic to so many foods
"He would take a bite and drink constantly. That was his M.O," said Michele Eskridge.
With the unusual diagnosis, Jalen's mother says his finicky food behaviors started to make sense. He only wanted to eat easy-to-swallow foods, and he was always drinking in between bites. Other than that, they had no clue.
The signs of EE can be hard to pick up on. Along with difficulty swallowing or food getting stuck, symptoms include stomach pain, severe heartburn, nausea, vomiting and weight loss. In many cases, this disorder is also misdiagnosed as reflux.
There are a handful of centers now researching EE. University of Illinois at Chicago is one of them.
"We believe something has changed in the environment, whether it is additives in food or pesticides or antibiotics, but something has definitely changed," said Dr. Amir Kagalwalla , pediatric gastroenterologist, UIC.
Scientists there are testing specific diets to see if eliminating foods then slowly reintroducing them is an effective treatment. Right now, EE patient Jori Kodroff can only eat three things - sweet potatoes, pears and bananas. The upbeat 15-year-old gets the rest of her nutrition drinking a special medical formula.
"I try to deal with it the best I can and try to make it good and not be all sad about it," said Jori.
Jalen also needs a special nutritional formula, which he ingests through a feeding tube at night. As for solid food, currently his body only tolerates French fries, bacon, rice and grits.
"As a family we just deal with it as it comes," said Michele Eskridge. "This is just a part of who he is, not all of who he is."
At this point, EE it can only be officially diagnosed with an endoscopy which involves sending a camera down the esophagus and getting a biopsy. Researchers are hoping to come up with a much less invasive test.
Campaign Urging Research for Eosinophilic Disease
Dr. Amir Kagalwalla
University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago
Dr. Mary Kay Tobin
Cincinnati Center for Eosinophilic Disorders
The International Gastrointestinal Eosinophil Researchers