11-8-12 NYA Letters to the Editor

Schools should be aware of food allergies

To the editor:

For some parents sending their child to school causes an abnormal amount of anxiety and fear. This is because some parents have a child with serious and life threatening allergic reactions to food. Part of the reason for these fears is that some schools are not very well equipped to handle these types of health concerns within the student body.

Schools should become more aware of and better prepared to support students who may be at risk for life-threatening food allergies. Although one may initially think that children with food allergies are few and far between, it is estimated that one in 13 children in the U.S. suffer from a food allergy. Additionally, food allergies are on the rise. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that food allergy incidence increased 18 percent from 1997 to 2007.

Some people may have the false or mistaken impression that a food allergy is just intolerance to a certain food, like lactose intolerance that can cause stomach upset. However, food allergies occur when a person’s immune system reacts differently than it should. Normally, your immune system protects you from germs and disease and it does this by making antibodies that help the body fight off bacteria and viruses that can make someone sick. But if someone has a food allergy, their immune system mistakenly treats something in a certain food as if it’s really dangerous to their body. So, the food itself is not harmful, but the way some people’s bodies react to the food is dangerous.

Even a tiny amount of the food can trigger symptoms. These symptoms can include digestive problems, and hives or swollen airways. In some people, a food allergy can cause severe symptoms or even a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. In some cases, when an allergic individual comes into contact with a particular allergen, large amounts of histamine and some other chemicals are released into the bloodstream.

The histamine then triggers an inflammatory response which is part of the body’s immune response to foreign pathogens. The effect of the histamine can cause blood pressure to drop and constriction of airways such that a person experiencing an anaphylactic allergic reaction may pass out and/or be unable to get oxygen.

Up to 1,500 deaths each year are caused by life-threatening allergic reactions. Doctor Hemant Sharma, chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. states that “anaphylaxis is a significant public health issue in our nation’s schools, where accidental exposures to allergens may occur . . . [w]e need to make sure everyone responsible for the safety of children in schools knows how to identify and avoid allergic triggers, recognize anaphylaxis signs and symptoms, and understand how to quickly get appropriate treatment and immediate medical care when a life-threatening allergic reaction occurs.”

It is important that schools have policies in place, and trained staff to help ensure safety of food allergic students.

Some key components of an effective food allergy policy are good management, risk reduction, and communication and implementation. All schools should have an Individualized Health Care Plan (IHP) and an Individualized Emergency Care Plan (IECP) for every student with a life-threatening food allergy. There should be guidelines in place to protect students with severe food allergies from exposure to those allergens.

These kinds of guidelines could include, assigning special lunch tables that remain allergen free, special separation of equipment in the cafeteria, and good classroom management in not allowing outside foods into the classroom. Finally, it is important for parents, students, and school staff to communicate successfully. It is crucial that parents effectively communicate their child’s needs and risks and that school staff grasp and appreciate these needs and risks, and also that students understand how best to keep themselves safe.

If schools can become better prepared with identifying students with allergen concerns, and implementing policies and training for food allergic students, they will be ready to deal with the increasing incidences of students with these special health considerations in the future. This will help prevent needless student deaths and assuage parental fears over sending their food allergic children to school.

Katie (Opdahl) Braun