As a friend tried to stop the attack, older, taunting students at a Vancouver Island school chased Aiden Broadhurst and pelted him with stones. it was a classic scene of schoolyard bullying, except for one unusual element: Aiden was targeted because of his life-threatening food allergies.
“These kids, they were telling Aiden and his friend they had peanuts,” recalled Trevor Broadhurst, the 12-year-old’s father. “They were just rocks, but my son didn’t know. His friend and him were just freaking out.”
It is an extreme example, but peanut bullying, which has been reported by other Canadian parents, is part of a more widespread reaction against society’s restrictive response to the menace of serious food allergies.
For years, parents at many schools have been told to keep peanuts in any form out of their children’s lunchboxes, making that childhod staple — the peanut butter and jelly sandwich — a lunchroom pariah. Sports venues like Toronto’s Rogers Centre have set up peanut-free zones, while airlines sometimes withhold canned nuts for the sake of allergic passengers.
But increasingly, experts are saying the anti-peanut movement has gone too far.
“The problem is that the anxiety about nuts is far out of proportion to the risk,” Dr. Nicholas Christakis, an internal-medicine specialist who studies medical sociology at Harvard Medical School, said in an interview.
Dr. Christakis argued in a major medical journal a month ago that the peanut bans and other dramatic measures taken by schools with allergic students are part of a mass hysteria that had developed around the problem.
Harper’s magazine ran an article last year — called “Everyone’s Gone Nuts” — that attempted to debunk what it called the exaggerated threat of food allergy.
An Ottawa newspaper columnist followed suit last week in a piece whose headline suggested that “Allergy scares are making people nuts.”
“The cycle of increasing anxiety, draconian measures and increasing prevalence of nut allergies must be broken,” Dr. Christakis declared in his column — titled, not surpringly, “This allergy hysteria is just nuts” — last December in the British Medical Journal.
Dr. Christakis recounted how a bus serving his child’s school was emptied of passengers and cleaned out when a single peanut was discovered on the floor. why, he asks, are such dramatic measures not employed to combat much greater threats to our young, like car accidents?
Barely mentioned a couple of decades ago, peanut and other severe food allergies have become pervasive in Western culture, with an estimated 1.5% of Canadian children now at risk from consuming peanuts. less common but sometimes as potentially lethal are allergies to tree nuts, eggs, shellfish, and milk. Those in most danger suffer anaphylaxis, an overreaction of the body’s immune system that can dangerously impede breathing. The only known treatment is quick administration of epinephrine, a form of adrenaline.
Allergy experts say the ranks of those with food allergies are expanding and, for those children and adults, it is a truly dangerous malady that sometimes requires preventive action by schools and other public institutions.
They admit, though, that certain myths about the condition have needlessly heightened fear — and skepticism — around the subject. Some allergists say schools need not go completely peanut-free, while new evidence suggests that depriving children of potentially allergenic foods early in life might actually make them more likely to develop allergies — not less, as previously thought.
Specialists also say that natural-health practitioners have “diluted” the seriousness of the problem by erroneously diagnosing a raft of food allergies using methods of little scientific validity.
“It is a situation ripe for mistakes to be made,” said Dr. Susan Waserman, an allergy expert at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
Bans are necessary in daycares and kindergartens where children cannot be counted on to take precautions against nut contamination, Canadian allergy experts argue, but they concede that some of the most extreme measures are likely not needed. Three of four interviewed this week said they did not believe school-wide bans among older children were required or wise. they advocated other action, instead, such as barring students from sharing food and setting up nut-free tables in cafeterias.
“Where does this (food banning) stop?” asks Dr. Marie-Noël Primeau, an allergy specialist at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. “If you have another kid in the class who has a milk allergy, another one is egg, another one is wheat, you won’t be able to bring anything.”
In 2006, Ontario instituted Sabrina’s Law, the country’s first legislation calling on schools to develop an anaphylaxis action plan, but the act does not mandate peanut bans. Still, the legislation’s namesake is a tragic reminder of what has prompted all the fuss. Sabrina Shannon died in 2003 when the dairy-allergic 13-year-old came in contact with traces of cheese at her school, and was not administered epinephrine quickly enough.
The notion that a seemingly innocent food can so endanger a child has undoubtedly fed the fear surrounding the condition. So, too, have some alarming “facts,” such as the suggestion that the allergic can go into anaphylactic shock simply by smelling peanut vapours or having peanut come in contact with their skin. There is no evidence to support either notion, experts say. while skin contact can cause hives, and smelling peanut may spark anxiety that mimics the beginnings of an attack, ingestion is needed to trigger anaphylaxis, they said.
On the other hand, skin contact can lead to peanut butter getting in a child’s mouth or eyes. And if scores of airline passengers open tins of nuts, they can release enough nut dust that allergic seatmates mght ingest it, noted Dr. Waserman.
The empirically proven standard for identifying the condition are skin and blood tests that pinpoint the presence of the IgE antibody, coupled with a history of allergic reactions to eating particular foods.
Alternative health practitioners, however, are using diagnostic methods of questionable value, often concluding that patients are allergic to several foods, then urging them to remove those items from their diets, say allergy specialists.
The techniques include Vega testing, whereby a machine measures patients’ electroconductivity in response to different foods, and blood tests for the antibody IgG, which most people produce routinely in response to food and is not considered by scientists to be an indicator of allergy.
“Some of these tests are based on their own beliefs, they’re not based on any scientific evidence,” said Dr. Amin Kanani, an allergist with the University of British Columbia. “These tests are often done for whatever the person comes in with: headache, stomach ache, skin rash … and they always come back positive.”
He has seen adult patients who have needlessly stopped eating grains, dairy products and even some fruit and vegetables because of such diagnoses, sometimes suffering nutritional deficiencies as a consequence.
For those who truly are food allergic, some might never have a life threatening reaction, or require dramatic preventive meausres. it is still impossible, however, to predict who is at risk of anaphylaxis and who is not, said Dr. David Hummel, an allergist at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto.
Meanwhile, new evidence has even called into question the standard advice that young children be deprived of potentially allergenic foods for their first years, based on the belief that early exposure may lead to allergy later. a British study compared about 5,000 Jewish children in the U.K. who rarely ate peanuts as babies or toddlers and a similar number in Israel who started consuming peanut products early on. The British, peanut-avoiding children were 10 times more likely to develop peanut allergies, according to a paper last November in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
Mr. Broadhurst says he and his wife did not ask for a total peanut ban for the first few years their son was at the private Christian school, but said their requests for less draconian measures still met resistance from administrators and other, “spiteful” parents. he chalks up such backlash to ignorance about the consequences of food allergies.
“They haven’t been in hospital with their 18-month-old son when he’s dieing, he’s blue because he can’t breathe, he’s covered in hives and the doctor’s not able to get an IV into him because he’s so small,” said Mr. Broadhurst, whose son is now being home schooled. “That kind of changes your life.”
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