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Health

How to keep allergens away from kids

If you're of a certain age, like me, your childhood memories of food at school are sweet and sentimental.

Nothing was off the table, literally, including mystery treats that in grade school would magically appear on your desk after recess. Ours were left by The Good Fairy.

Lunch was wholesome and filling, served on actual plates.

And nobody — but nobody — in 12 years in the public school system ever went into anaphylactic shock. Nobody ever died from a peanut.

Last month, 7-year-old Amarria Denise Johnson ate a peanut while on the playground of her Chesterfield school and fell into anaphylactic shock. Her heart stopped, and nobody could start it again.

It was a tragic event that has educators, even here in Hampton Roads, redoubling their efforts to make schools hard targets for food allergens.

In schools today, food can no longer be used as rewards (goodbye, Good Fairy!). Outside food brought in by parents must be store-bought and include a full list of ingredients (no more home-baked birthday cupcakes).

Some schools have "allergen-free" cafeteria tables, or have children with severe allergies eat in a separate room.

Peanuts are the most common childhood allergen, so parents in general are discouraged from packing the old PB&J sandwiches in their child's lunchbox, just in case. Some parents want to see schools ban the peanut altogether.

And lawmakers are pushing this year to require every school that has a student with a life-threatening allergy to have one or two employees trained to administer injectable epinephrine.

Is this overkill? Or proportional?

Maybe a bit of both.

Food allergies among children jumped 18 percent from 1997 to 2007. One out of every 25 children — or 5.9 million — has a food allergy, according to a study published last year in "Pediatrics," the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Of those children, nearly 40 percent have a history of severe reactions. And about 15 percent of all allergic reactions occurred at school.

It's not just affecting American kids, either. Experts say most Westernized countries are seeing higher rates of food allergy, although nobody knows exactly why.

Is it some mutation in the food? Some genetic hiccup? Or is it the chemicals we dump with abandon on crops and watersheds?

Until we figure it out, schools are left to scramble, which isn't easy in the wake of budget cutbacks that have decimated the supply of school nurses. In little Amarria's case, for instance, she was taken to the school clinic, which had an aide, but no medication.

Many Peninsula schools already developed their own "life-threatening allergy management protocols" in 2010. Most districts allow children to carry EpiPens, with parental consent.

South of the James, the Isle of Wight school district is crafting a policy covering students with food allergies.

It's a challenge for educators, politicians and the community to formulate an appropriate — and cost-effective — response. Some ideas:

•Provide free medic alert bracelets and EpiPen carriers to children with food allergies. Make them attractive so children will actually wear them. This would be an excellent project for a local community service group.

•Educate children about what an allergic reaction feels like, and what it looks like in another. Teach them how to respond if they suspect one. Children in middle-school and older can be taught how to administer epinephrine to another child who's unable to do so.

•Don't ban specific foods. Experts caution that peanut butter, milk, eggs, wheat and other common allergens may be a protein staple for another child. But do ban snacking on the playground or the school bus.

•Don't isolate children with allergies in the lunchroom. Group them at a table with friends who have allergen-free meals.

•And parents, know your child's food allergy. Inform your school. And teach your child to take it seriously.

Contact Tamara at 757-247-7892 or tdietrich@dailypress.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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