Thursday, January 5, 2012

Food Allergy Deaths Are Tragic and often Preventable

I had planned to begin the new year with an uplifting New Year's post about how far my family and daughter have come in dealing with food allergies. I wanted to share some positive stories and tips that we've learned over the years.

And then I read the latest news story about a food allergy death in Virginia. A 7-year-old girl became ill and died from an apparent peanut allergy reaction on her first day back at school. My heart goes out to the family and I am very sorry for their loss.

This tragic story called to mind other recent food allergy deaths, one of which involved a 6-year-old girl at a school in Quebec. I was reminded of a 7th grader in Chicago who died in December 2010 from a peanut allergy reaction. Of course there have been others but these two stick out in my mind because they happened at school and in both cases epinephrine autoinjectors were not available to the students. With food allergy deaths, the lack of epinephrine autoinjectors or their usage is a common theme. It's worth checking on your prescriptions right now and making sure that they are accessible to your child at school and anywhere else for that matter, at all times.

Accidents can happen and no one can prepare for every circumstance, but so much can be done to minimize the risk of these deadly reactions ever occuring in the first place. As much as we are shocked and horrified by these deaths, I hope we will all take the time to review our own food allergy policies and procedures at school (and everywhere else) and make sure that everyone involved is ready, willing and able to carry out emergency plans if needed.

Another hope is that we will be unafraid to teach our kids how to handle food allergy situations. Even very young kids can be taught what to do. Just like fire drills, you can have food allergy drills where you talk about how to avoid food and what to do if your child feels sick at school. This process doesn't have to be scary or terrifying, but it can be empowering. Our ultimate goal is that kids will self-advocate and self-administer medications as they get old enough.

That's just one piece of the puzzle. I urge everyone, especially those of us with young kids, to check in with the school and make sure everything is up to date with regards to medications and emergency procedures. Issue reminders and provide additional information or medications if necessary. I like to check in with the nurse after winter break just to make sure all of my medications are up to date, for example.

For those of us with older kids, ask them to practice using an epinephrine autoinjector and go over basic food allergy rules about safe foods, remembering to carry their medications, whatever you feel they need a review in.

Another thing you can do is support the epinephrine bill for schools. This link will take you to a page where you can find a sample letter of support for this bill and it will help you to find names and addresses of your local senators. It doesn't take long to customize one of these letters and if this bill becomes law, it can save lives of precious children.

It's natural to wonder what went wrong in tragic food allergy deaths so that you can better prepare yourself and your kids for mistakes or allergic reactions. But there is a flipside to this that is also tragic (to me, anyway) -- and that's the notion of living in fear.

Some of us might be tempted to think that school or other activities are simply not safe and that we must either be constantly terrified and/or take our child out of educational settings or activities that are enriching to them. We might become unduly negative towards the idea of our child becoming independent or trying new activities.

While food allergy deaths are horrible, it's good to remember that education can save lives and readily available, quickly administered epinephrine can prevent deaths. Learning to avoid allergic reactions is also key -- such as avoiding unsafe or high-risk foods and learning to manage different environments. I hope we can focus on being prepared and not just being scared.

An article in USA Today reflected some of these views with quotes from prominent allergy doctors. I was happy to see this article because it reiterates how important and effective it is to be prepared and to expect mistakes. If you expect them, you can be ready to deal with them.

I've had many questions about dealing with food allergies at school, so here are some links that you might find helpful.

FAAN Resources for School Professionals

Back to school tips from my blog with many helpful links to articles and resources

FAAN Blog--Our Family's School Success Story

Thanks to everyone who has shown support for the families who lose their children to food allergies. Our thoughts are with them today.


Misti said...

The story of this sweet girl's death breaks my heart and terrifies me. I know I drive my 2 year old's Sunday School teachers and nursery workers and others that are in her care crazy, but I remind them EVERY time of her allergy, the signs of a reaction, what to do, and that there is a book of instructions in her bag.

muffintopmommy said...

Thank you for this well balanced, common sense blog post. I really struggle with walking the balance between being prepared for my kids, and not scared. After I posted an article about the death in VA on my Facebook page, one of my friends said she'd consider homeschooling her child if he had a peanut allergy. But the thing is, I can't keep my kids in a bubble because I'm afraid---they have to interact in the real world and we all need to learn how to safely deal with their allergies. I think education and preparedness is key, so I thank you for your wonderful, informative blog, as always.

Liz said...

I so agree, Jenny. My heart goes out to this family. Theirs is a tragedy that is all-too-close to home for those of us with kids who have nut allergies. And you're right, we can't live in fear. Nor should we pass on a sense of fear to our kids with allergies. Your post says it all so well: confirm things are in order at school (just yesterday I confirmed the expiration dates on all of my son's meds and was reassured to see that his teacher knew exactly where they were when I asked), help prepare your child to communicate if a reaction occurs and educate EVERYONE with whom your child interacts. These steps can make a huge difference. Thanks for being a thoughtful, caring leader in this community.

Jane C said...

Thank you for writing this article. I have a son with a peanut allergy and I have no intention of sheltering him from this world but my worries are real and frightening. I find it hard to believe that any school populated with children who have allergies do not have emergency care plans that include epi pens for all children with nut allergies. Education and awareness are vital to the safety of all children with these potentially fatal allergies.

Mike said...

Very good article. It's a shame about that little girl.

Susan H. @ The Food Allergy Chronicles said...

Your post touches on key factors for the safety of our children with food allergies. Education and awareness of food allergies is essential for all those interacting with our children with food allergies. I often explain to my two boys with food allergies that 'accidents are called accidents because we don't plan on them happening...being prepared for them we can plan on.' Susan H. @ The Food Allergy Chronicles