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The Allergy Blogs • The Editor's Desk

Chatelaine vs. Food Allergies

With many years in the publishing industry, I thought I’d seen it all when it comes to negative or one-sided reporting. Then I read a story in the December 2009 issue of Canada’s Chatelaine magazine entitled, “It’s Just Nuts.” This one made my jaw drop.

The article is at once breathtaking in its cynicism about the rise of food allergies and misleading in its abuse of facts and statistics. It begins with the image of parents and schools across the land “cowering in fear of the tiny peanut,” followed by a rhetorical question that becomes the premise: “Are we overreacting to food allergies?”

Writer Patricia Pearson then skewers the hard-won accommodations in schools to protect food allergic children. Not once does she speak to a principal or teacher to find out the schools’ perspective. Had she, she would likely have heard why restrictions on certain foods are easier to manage than discovering 10 peanut butter sandwiches amid a classroom of boisterous students, where some have severe peanut allergies.

Not once does she slow up to consider the pathology of anaphylaxis: a swift and dramatic reaction that can obstruct airways, cause severe facial swelling, violent bouts of nausea or diarrhea and precipitate a significant drop in blood pressure. It’s a traumatic event, which can, in rare circumstances, even be fatal. Not once, in fact, does Ms. Pearson give an example of a real child who has anaphylaxed. (And they aren’t hard to find.)

The writer singles out peanut allergy, wondering why it gets so much attention. Had she asked an allergist this question, he or she could have pointed her to studies showing that peanut is one of two top allergens for kids, and that peanut and tree nut allergies have triggered the majority of anaphylaxis deaths in North America. And since peanut butter is still a kids’ staple, it becomes a focus, though certainly not the only one.

At its root, what is the Chatelaine writer’s big issue with schools and food allergy management plans? It seems the principal at her son’s school has asked that peanut products not be brought on the premises as part of his anaphylaxis management strategy. This means her son can’t bring a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. And this is apparently a hardship.

Ms. Pearson’s article is actually a latecomer to a round of negative reporting on food allergies. [See Allergic Living’s “Backlash Boards the Bus” story from our Spring 2009 issue.] What I find particularly disturbing, though, is that this article ran in Chatelaine.

This isn’t some edgy, contrarian current affairs magazine, this is Canada’s leading women’s magazine; friend to all women and their children, with a reach of almost four million readers. The pre-Holiday issue with the “nutty” article also ran the more typical women’s magazine fare: “meals in a minute”, “Shortcut Christmas Dinner”, health, fitness, fashion and home décor stories.

This is your big sweater of a magazine: a warm, cozy, inclusive place with the odd “women of Afghanistan” article thrown in as a think piece. In Canada, getting taken down in Chatelaine is as close as it gets to being kneecapped by Oprah.

While I have issues with Ms. Pearson’s reporting, what I find most incomprehensible is why the (former) editor of Chatelaine, Maryam Sanati, would print such an article. No writer tells you what to publish in a magazine – that’s the editor’s call. And when your magazine holds a role of great respect and wide readership in the community, it’s unfathomable to simply attack a children’s health issue with a narrow, one-sided view.

Ms. Sanati has been on the radio, perpetuating her writer’s assumption that the dramatic rise in food allergies is a myth, popularized by the media and skittish parents. “Let’s not over-react, let’s not call this an epidemic,” Ms. Sanati told one Halifax interviewer.

Just one minute here. What mass Canadian publication first labeled the steep rise in food allergies an “epidemic”? That would be Maclean’s magazine, Chatelaine’s relative in the Rogers Media stable. In June, 2006, Maclean’s ran an indepth article called “The Allergy Epidemic,” and spoke to many experts, among them Dr. Judah Denburg. He’s the scientific director of Canada’s AllerGen research network and an authority on the prevalence of allergic diseases. He explained that the incidence of food allergies had risen dramatically from less than 1 per cent in the 1990s. Now it’s 4 per cent of the North American population.

The pivotal study that started the food allergy “epidemic” discussion among scientists is that of Dr. Hugh Sampson, the esteemed allergy researcher from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Titled “Update on Food Allergy” and published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (JACI) in 2004, this peer-reviewed paper found an overall prevalence of 4 per cent of Americans with food allergies in a five-year study between 1997 and 2002. In younger children, the rate climbed to 6 per cent. That represented a remarkably significant jump from under 1 per cent of the general population in the previous five-year study.

As well, Dr. Sampson found a doubling of peanut allergy in children. Given similar demographics and diet, Dr. Denburg has said it is fair to extrapolate that Canadian rates are similar. There was also supporting evidence out of McGill University showing an even higher rate of peanut allergy in Montreal schoolchildren than in the U.S. – 1.6 per cent for just this one of 10 top allergens.

Still there’s nothing like having a country’s own national survey, and AllerGen has financed the first for Canada, known by the acronym SCAAALAR. While overall prevalence rates won’t be crunched and published until next March, some key SCAAALAR findings have been released: among Canadian kids, there are significantly higher rates of peanut (1.52 per cent) and tree nut allergies (1.13 per cent) than among U.S. kids. [2010 update: SCAAALAR final results on Canada’s food allergy prevalence.]

When I asked Dr. Ann Clarke of McGill University, a lead researcher on both the McGill and SCAAALAR studies, about the significance of the peanut allergy rate, she said: “It represents a major health concern.”

Unfortunately for Chatelaine readers, Ms. Pearson didn’t speak to Dr. Clarke and simply chose to compare the 2002 and 2007 peanut allergy studies out of McGill University. The rise between those two periods is not significant. The writer cold missed that the true statistical comparison point in the epidemic is from the early and mid-1990s to the early 2000s.

She mustn’t have seen that Dr. Sampson and Dr. Estelle Simons from the University of Manitoba, a renowned expert on anaphylaxis, published an editorial last December on the question of whether an anaphylaxis epidemic was fact or fiction. The conclusion? Fact. None of the experts knows if the incidence of food allergies will continue to increase, they just know that a big bump started showing up, and staying up as of the late 1990s and into this century.

Statistics are more illuminating when you translate them into what they represent. Using Statistics Canada’s latest figures, 1.52 per cent of boys and girls up to the age of 14 means almost 90,000 kids with peanut allergy (and that’s not counting most of high school). If Canada does end up coming in at 6 per cent of children with the full gamut of top food allergies, as the U.S. did, that will mean about 350,000 kids under 14.

Now put faces on those kids, give them personalities and families and tell me – are they really not worth keeping safe in their schools? Does one child’s “right” to a sandwich trump another’s right to safety in his classroom?

I would have thought I knew which side of this issue Chatelaine would be on. I am amazed to be wrong.Chatelaine has done a great disservice with an article that paints a woefully distorted view of food allergies and will only serve to confuse the public. Chatelaine owes the food allergy community an apology.

Related Reading
Food Allergy Backlash: Why Is It Occurring?

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