Severe food allergies — a social concern

Severe food allergies — a social concern

Allergy statistics and facts from 2012 state that the “rank of allergies among other leading chronic diseases in the U.S. [is] 5th.”

Allergy statistics and facts from 2012 state that the “rank of allergies among other leading chronic diseases in the U.S. [is] 5th.”

by Grant Knight — 

About a year ago, some of my friends were hanging out together. Before going to the rec center to play basketball, they decided to eat at Panda Express. Now, one of my friends has a pretty serious peanut allergy. He ordered the honey walnut shrimp, which was on the buffet line right next to the only dish that contained peanuts. Some cross-contamination must have occurred, because by the time they all arrived at the gym, my friend was very sick. A few minutes later, he vomited and then proceeded to faint right into the pile of his half-digested seafood.

Fortunately he is fine today, but only after a trip to the emergency room and some life-saving intervention. This occurrence highlights a major health risk that many people face every day, and some are unaware that they may have to deal with this hazard themselves. Most likely, everyone knows someone who has this potentially life-threatening problem, or perhaps you, yourself, may be dealing with severe allergies.

Allergy statistics and facts from 2012 state that the “rank of allergies among other leading chronic diseases in the U.S. [is] 5th.” Though many things can cause allergic reactions, this focuses on allergies related to food. According to Food Allergy Research and Education, “Researchers estimate that up to 15 million Americans have (severe) food allergies. This potentially deadly disease affects one in every 13 children under 18 years of age in the U.S. That is roughly two in every classroom.” Food allergies are on the rise, and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not sure why.

Food allergies are not just a medical concern; they are also a societal concern. With nearly every social gathering including some types of food and drinks, and because such a large portion of our population is affected by allergies, positive strategies need to be explored and employed to reduce risk to those who suffer from allergies. Public awareness, educational training and careful prevention must be emphasized, as well as further research for successful interventions and treatments.

An allergy begins when the immune system mistakes a normally harmless substance for a dangerous invader. According to Dr. Kari Nadeau with the Stanford School of Medicine, “A food allergy occurs when the immune system reacts to a certain food. The most common form of an immune system reaction occurs when the body creates immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to the food. When these IgE antibodies react with the food, histamine and other chemicals are released, causing hives, asthma or other much more severe symptoms of an allergic reaction.”

Once a severe allergic reaction begins, quick action is of the utmost importance. In some cases, allergic reactions can lead to a life-threatening condition called anaphylaxis, where the airway can swell and become completely blocked. Symptoms include throat swelling, a sudden drop in blood pressure, trouble breathing, dizziness and fainting.

The most common way to treat severe allergic reactions is with epinephrine, a hormone commonly referred to as adrenaline. Epinephrine is quickly injected into the thigh of the patient and a 911 call or an immediate trip to the ER is standard, because more medicine is usually required, as it does not last long in the system.

With the major rise in the frequency of food allergies in children, serious problems occur when attending school.

With the major rise in the frequency of food allergies in children, serious problems occur when attending school.

Social problems associated with allergic reactions to food are many. With the major rise in the frequency of food allergies in children, serious problems occur when attending school. By some estimates, about 5 percent of children under the age of 5 are affected.

Not all severe allergies are equal. For example, a child who attends kindergarten at an elementary school in Chandler, Ariz., has allergies so severe that the school must make special accommodations for him. He must eat lunch alone on a desk that has to be cleaned to remove even the slightest trace of dairy or corn. All students who might possibly come in contact with him must wash their hands after lunch. Also, popcorn cannot be popped anywhere on campus, even in the teachers’ lounge. He may never be able to enter a movie theater because of his allergies. This little boy is a great kid who unfortunately has to deal with a serious health concern. But so does his community — if he is to stay safe.

The social stigma toward children with allergies is a major problem in society. According to author Suellen Fried, “About one in four children is bullied, teased or harassed because of a food allergy, a medical condition that is potentially fatal.” Also, according to a study conducted in 2012, families with children who are living with this potentially life-threatening condition often feel isolated, stigmatized or unfairly excluded from activities due to their allergies. Children with food allergies are also at risk on play dates, in the homes of extended family and friends, and in restaurants.

Another social concern related to food allergies is highlighted in an article by researchers at the University of Michigan who stated, “Current college-age students are among the first wave of young people who grew up in a time of a rapid increase in the number of children diagnosed with food allergies.”

Two eye-opening statistical results from this article are worth noting. “In addition to finding low numbers of students (who actually need them) possessing self-injectable devices, the researchers also found that only 17 percent of those who possess one carry it with them all the time.” This means college students are not properly prepared in the case of an emergency caused by a severe allergic reaction. Also, “High percentages of students report that their roommates and others are not aware of their food allergies.” Without proper awareness and training, sharing a room or even living on the same dorm floor with someone who could have serious medical problems from ingesting, or even just being exposed to a certain food, is frightening.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed into law in 1990. It gives protection from discrimination to people with disabilities, and it guarantees equal opportunities. Many changes took place when the ADA passed. A new era of awareness and opportunities presented itself for those who had previously not had social acceptance.

This same sort of awareness is now demanded for those dealing with severe food allergies. As a matter of fact, according to the ADA website: “Some individuals with food allergies have a disability as defined by the ADA, particularly those with more significant or severe responses to certain foods. This would include individuals with celiac disease and others who have autoimmune responses to certain foods, the symptoms of which may include difficulty swallowing and breathing, asthma or anaphylactic shock.”

People with life-altering allergic reactions report experiencing feelings of isolation and separation from the rest of society, as do people with other physical disabilities. For those whose lives are completely altered by what they cannot eat or be exposed to — all day, every day — severe food allergies can make them feel that they have a significant disability. This is limiting and restrictive.

A thoughtful and thorough approach needs to be considered, as this problem is on the rise. Food allergies can involve life and death situations, and they need to be taken seriously. First, educational training, including sensitivity training, must be implemented across communities to mitigate the threat of allergies. Second, schools and universities, recreational centers, government agencies, churches and restaurants must consider appropriate and thorough training for employees regarding severe food allergies. Third, according to a 2011 Washington Post article titled, “Food Allergy Sufferers Negotiate the Minefields of Dining Out,” Massachusetts was the first state to mandate allergen training for restaurants. The other states should and need to follow that example.

Prevention is also necessary. For example, a list of ingredients in foods being served must become commonplace. A concentrated effort must be implemented to eradicate cross contamination in restaurants and cafeterias, in order to stop situations like the one that occurred to my friend.

Lead researcher Matt Greenhawt, M.D., a fellow in the Division of Allergy and Immunology at the U-Michigan Health System, suggests that “colleges and universities consider labeling all the foods in dining halls that contain one of the ‘big eight’ of food allergens, which together account for about 90 percent of all food allergies: milk, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, eggs, soy, wheat or fish.”

Second, a new product recently became available that teenagers and college students are more likely to carry. It is Auvi-Q™, an FDA-approved credit card-sized and -shaped replacement for the bulky EpiPen — and the delivery system even talks the patient through how to inject the epinephrine.

Third, research and innovations must be explored. Some cutting edge research, reported in August 2013, involves a current peanut allergy study being conducted that could help people avoid a severe allergic reaction. It “aims to desensitize people allergic to peanuts through a patch containing a peanut protein. The study, sponsored by French biopharmaceutical firm DBV Technologies, is being conducted in 24 centers worldwide.”

If this patch is successful, it could open the door for other revolutionary treatments, which could potentially curb allergic reactions to other foods. This could have incredible benefits for those who suffer from severe food allergies.

So, in a nutshell — well wait, maybe not in a nutshell — we all need to fully understand the broader scope of problems that severe allergies present, and we must modify our approach as a community committed to dealing with this problem.

Awareness, training, education, sensitivity, prevention and research are necessary to help society move in a more positive direction in order to deal with the rise of severe food allergies. That way, we can stop people everywhere from fainting.

 

Grant Knight, a sophomore at Chandler Preparatory Academy, is an active leader in his school community, serving as a Dean’s Council representative, a Student Ambassador and Mentor, as well as co-captain of the speech and debate team. He was invited as an honoree to the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Grand Ceremony and was nominated for Outstanding Scholar at the ASU Barrett Summer Scholars program. 480-820-5855 or gknightmail7@gmail.com.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 33, Number 2, April/May 2014.

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