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Food Allergy Anaphylaxis – A Tragedy

Some children will have mild reactions to eating a food they are allergic to. They may experience watery eyes, a runny nose or hives, and then quickly recover with a dose of Benadryl®. Still others may vomit and immediately feel better. Other children will experience anaphylaxis, the most severe of allergic reactions and end up in the emergency room receiving shots of epinephrine. Tragically, some children will die.

This is a picture of Sabrina Shannon, a 13 year old Canadian girl when she died at school from anaphylaxis to dairy in 2003. Sabrina’s mother, Sara, has become one of the most renowned advocates of food allergy guidelines in schools to help children with food allergies stay safe. I’ve met Sara, and to say that she is wonderful doesn’t begin to explain her fortitude. I can’t imagine becoming an advocate at the level that she has – and she lost her only child. She understands how serious anaphylaxis is. Now, she just needs to impress that upon the rest of the world.

Friends and family couldn’t understand how vigilant we needed to be when our son, Morgan, was diagnosed with food allergies. How can anyone die from eating one bite of a food? Is it really necessary to read EVERY label of EVERY food that is eaten? We heard these questions and more: Why can’t your child eat the cake I made for the birthday party? Won’t he grow out of his severe food allergies?

It is estimated that five Americans die each day from anaphylaxis (from allergic reactions to medicines, food and/or insect stings). Tens of thousands of emergency room visits occur each year from anaphylaxis.

The most recent tragedy involved a 15 year old British boy who died after eating what he thought was a safe carry out meal at a restaurant. You can read about that story here.

Accidents occur, and for the food allergic child, such an accident can cause death. It is the reality of what we live with daily. We try to not focus on this; instead we try to gain an understanding of what we can learn from these tragedies. This is a preventable death, and our family does everything we can to stay safe and enjoy life.

In the April 2007 “Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology” research was submitted on the deaths of 31 individuals who suffered fatal anaphylaxis. Peanuts accounted for 17 of the deaths (55%); tree nuts caused 8; milk caused 4; and shrimp 2.  Epinephrine availability is a key factor in the cause of death with only 4 of the fatalities having received epinephrine in a timely fashion.

What can be learned from these tragedies for those of us with food allergic children?

It seems to me that education and awareness are the footwork that is available to us all. The more people are aware that my son has severe, life threatening food allergies, the better the chance that he will not experience anaphylaxis. Telling family members, friends, teachers, etc., about his food allergies is necessary so that they realize what they eat could potentially impact him.

Secondly, my son needs to be his own advocate. I hope that impressing a teenage girl won’t scramble his brain to the point that he forgets what he’s allergic to now that he’s a teenager! Learning at a young age how to advocate for his safety was something we worked on daily. Lastly, our allergist has told us that children with a dual diagnosis of asthma and food allergies have much more likelihood to experience anaphylaxis. For that reason, more precautions will have to be practiced. For better or worse, my son will have to know what his date ate for dinner, and maybe even for lunch!

Dr. David Fleischer, an Allergist & Immunologist at National Jewish Hospital in Denver, told Morgan and I that Morgan could have a reaction to kissing a girl if she ate one of his allergens within the previous 2 hours. She could mitigate this issue by not eating the particular food (best choice!) or by eating some other food or brushing her teeth to remove the allergen.

Various research has shown that teenagers are the highest risk group for fatalities from allergic reactions. Teenagers, in general, tend to believe they are invincible, and are more likely to take risks. When it comes to food allergies, they are less likely to have an EpiPen immediately available, and are no longer under the watchful and careful eye of their parents. Only 61% of teens reported always carrying their EpiPen in a “Risk Taking Study” by Dr. Hugh Sampson of Mt. Sinai Hospital.  In our house, we want 100% compliance with EpiPen carrying!

Food allergy reactions are extremely serious. I want to give my son every chance to learn from others, be a good advocate and enjoy life … while always carrying his two EpiPens!