By Susan Tharp
A recent study found that one in 13 children in America suffer from food allergies. Unlike other childhood medical conditions, there is no cure for food allergies and they can linger an entire lifetime.
What makes food allergies even more challenging is that trace amounts of a food allergen can cause a reaction. Most are caused by ingestion, but some are due to contact or inhalation, such as cooking fumes or peanut dust.
Allergic reactions are unpredictable. They may present and progress differently than previous reactions and a seemingly mild reaction can turn serious quickly. Prompt administration of epinephrine (adrenaline) is crucial to surviving a life-threatening reaction.
Many of the kids with food allergies are aware that they could die if they eat the wrong food. At our most recent San Antonio Food Allergy Support Team (FAST) field trip, even a pre-schooler carried his own easy-to-use EpiPen, an epinephrine auto-injector.
When they reach school age, they may wonder if their schools are making efforts to keep them safe. Danger is often at the front of their minds, rather than any classroom objectives. They worry about who will help them if they have a reaction and if they will be teased or unintentionally exposed to a food that most people consider nutritious or delicious, yet to them can be life-threatening.
At the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network’s (FAAN’s) Support Group Leaders’ Summit which I attended last month in Chicago, Sara Shannon was our keynote speaker. Her daughter died tragically at the age of 13, after eating what she thought were allergen-free French fries from her school cafeteria.
Another conference speaker, FAAN’s medical advisor, allergist Dr. Todd Mahr, shared research about several promising clinical trials. However, since there is no cure for food allergies yet, he advised us to remain vigilant about avoiding allergens and carrying the epinephrine auto-injector. We also heard advice about school safety from Eleanor Garrow (FAAN VP), Gina Clowes (FAAN VP/Allergy Moms), and Nicole Smith (Allergic Child).
Following several recent student deaths, including a 7th grader in Illinois and a 1st grader in Virginia, FAAN is working to pass a federal law that would allow schools to stock an extra dose of life-saving epinephrine for emergencies. This “School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act” would help students with known allergies as well as the significant number of kids who have their first reaction at school. Maria Acebal, FAAN’s CEO, implored us to “always have epinephrine an arm’s reach away” from our food allergic children and support this legislation.
Many of us with allergic children recognize that allergen exposure is often preventable and quick treatment with epinephrine can save lives, but requires education and diligence on the part of all adults who care for our children. So, when kids die from allergic reactions, it breaks our hearts, terrifies us, and frustrates us.
Fourteen states have statewide guidelines that include best practices and resources. These guidelines are not intended to create nut-free schools, but are designed to ensure that school administrators, faculty, and staff are better prepared to help prevent, recognize, and treat allergic reactions.
The Texas “Guidelines for the Care of Students with Food Allergies At -Risk for Anaphylaxis” should be published May 1. School districts must have policies in place by August 1, 2012, based on the Texas guidelines. We are hopeful that this will allow food allergic kids to safely participate in more school activities.
If you care about someone with food allergies, encourage them to follow their allergist’s recommendations for avoiding their allergen. If they were prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector, ensure that they always have it with them, along with their written emergency plan.
Furthermore, help us to ensure that all schools and families use FAAN’s downloadable “Food Allergy Action Plan.”
For more information, visit The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network or call (800) 929-4040
Susan Tharp, leader of the San Antonio Food Allergy Support Team (FAST), a group of parents of food allergic children volunteering to improve the safety of children with life-threatening food allergies.