I’m a longtime reader of Chatelaine magazine, and always liked that its name, in French, means a trusted female charged with keeping all in her care safe and protected. She’s the so-called “keeper of the keys.” But in its December issue, Chatelaine turned her back on a small but important group of her youngest citizens.
In an article headlined, “It’s Just Nuts,” writer Patricia Pearson builds a case around her opinion that school accommodations for food allergies, particularly restrictions on peanut products, are nothing but a panic-driven, unnecessary over-reaction.
As a special education assistant and the mother of an child with anaphylaxis, I cannot let Ms. Pearson’s article go unchallenged. It contains too many incorrect conclusions that could impact whether an important health issue is taken seriously. It leaves Chatelaine readers questioning what is right and what is reasonable. It portrays the parents of kids with allergies as fearful and neurotic, when in fact, we are asking for accommodations that medical professionals and school boards have deemed appropriate.
Chatelaine’s article ignores that the inclusive, community approach to protecting children with serious food allergies has been a vast improvement, and is working well. What can be difficult to grasp, is that the steep rise in food allergies is a new phenomenon. Researchers tell us that between 6 and 8 per cent of kids have now have food allergies. Conservatively, that’s the equivalent of half the population of New Brunswick. They live with the unpredictable risk of anaphylaxis, the serious form of allergic reaction that can cause shock, suffocation and heart attack in a frighteningly short period of time. There have been cases of brain damage and, tragically, even death.
It is the fast and severe nature of such reactions, combined with the fast-growing incidence food allergies and the need for total avoidance of a food allergen that have led to precautions in our schools.
Ms. Pearson fails to understand that such measures are not about inconveniencing her by depriving her son of peanut butter for one meal of the day. It’s about protecting children from anaphylaxis, no matter what food is involved. She belittles the low number of deaths from anaphylaxis, without realizing that it is exactly due to the approach of taking precautions rather than letting allergic emergencies happen that protects our kids from becoming statistics. Not that there haven’t been tragedies. It’s curious that in all her talk about schools and allergies, Ms. Pearson never mentions Sabrina Shannon. In 2003, at the age of 13, following a devastating anaphylactic reaction to an inadvertent exposure to cheese curds in her cafeteria (she was milk allergic), Sabrina died. It’s hard to believe that Chatelaine’s writer wouldn’t have come across Sabrina’s story in her research. When Ontario created the world’s first legislation mandating risk-reduction measures and emergency training to protect students with food allergies in their schools, it was named “Sabrina’s Law” in remembrance.
Even if anaphylaxis never caused death, the need to minimize reactions would still be of paramount importance. A reaction is terrifying, excruciating and stresses the body. It is also traumatic for school staff and other children to witness. Is a sandwich worth that risk?
In 2007, I was part of a committee in British Columbia that developed the Education Minister’s directive to the province’s schools about food allergies. In order to understand the scope of the issue, the government requested that school districts complete a survey on anaphylactic policies and incidents from 2005 onward. Almost half the districts that responded had experienced one or more anaphylactic reaction serious enough to warrant the filing of a critical incidence report. The anaphylaxis management policies pre-dating the directive ranged from non-existent to minimal to comprehensive – a far cry from the careful, commonsense approaches that Ms. Pearson claims were in evidence.
Regulations surrounding food allergy are based on education and awareness, stressing training for school staff, access to epinephrine auto-injectors, strategies to reduce the risk of reaction and communication with the school community. Each plan for each child is unique, reflecting the child’s needs and the school’s environment. Hand-washing, lunchroom seating, and cleaning practices are all examples of appropriate risk-reduction measures. But there is no escaping it – children like Ms. Pearson’s son are being asked to “please enjoy your peanut butter sandwich at home”.
Peanut butter is sticky, hard to clean, and ends up smeared over shared school supplies, toys and playground equipment. One teacher with a class of 20 little kids cannot possibly be expected to manage the risk. My 12-year-old son has had three accidental exposures to peanut since his diagnosis. Two occurred at his school when he was 6 years old. Young children cannot be expected to protect themselves without support. Peanut often causes serious reactions with a very small amount of protein, and it’s over-represented as a cause of fatalities when compared to other allergens.
While Ms. Pearson dismisses the fact that a new study finds slightly less than 2 per cent of Canadian kids have peanut allergy, she ignores that this is one of the highest rates in the Western world. Further, I would argue that the welfare of about 90,000 kids is worth bothering about.
I spend most of my days in a classroom and have never met a child who did not want to help keep kids with allergies safe once they understood the issue. I find that rational explanations almost always turn hostile parents of non-allergic pupils into cooperative supporters. Ms. Pearson is an exception, and that Chatelaine would publish such a distorted view is truly disturbing. My hope is that children at risk of anaphylaxis gain support and understanding in the community at large. They certainly didn’t find either in the pages of Chatelaine.
Pamela Lee lives in Vancouver. She is a special education assistant and an associate editor of Allergic Livingmagazine. She originally submitted a first draft of this article to Chatelaine to consider publishing. The magazine’s editor rejected the piece, replying that “there are no plans to publish a rebuttal article.”