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Gwen Smith: From the Editor's Desk

Who’s to Blame for Another Allergy Tragedy?

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In the aftermath of Amarria’s death, a spokesman for Hopkins Elementary, the school Amarria attended, suggested that there might be a problem if a child was given the drug in error. Hogwash.

People think “drug” and they worry about what it might do or about giving it in the wrong circumstance. Epinephrine may be a drug, but allergists who are experts on it say that if you used auto-injector by mistake on a person who didn’t need it, that person might get the jitters, maybe a stomach ache, or at worst, vomiting. In other words, it is considered a very safe drug. The consequences of not using it when needed are far greater than those of administering it when its use is questionable.

At a medical conference back in 2005, I interviewed Dr. Estelle Simons, an allergist and renowned expert on anaphylaxis and epinephrine. We were speaking about the lack of public awareness of anaphylaxis and of what to do in an emergency. After our interview, she tracked me down to add: “We need to get the message out: It should be public policy to teach people that anaphylaxis can be fatal and that lives can be saved by prompt injection of epinephrine.”

She was right then and she’s right today. And more can be done to change the situation in schools.

If you live in the United States, what you can do to help with emergency prevention in the schools is to lobby Congress for a very important proposed piece of legislation: the School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act, dubbed the “stock” epinephrine law for short. It encourages states to require schools to have a stock of auto-injectors that can be used for any student who is having an allergic reaction. The bill was introduced by two Illinois senators after a 13-year-old in Chicago inadvertently ate peanut at a class party and died. Another young life needlessly lost, another tragedy where epinephrine could have made the difference.

While Virginia’s current self-carry allergy and asthma medications statute requires that epinephrine at school only be used for the student with a prescription, school staff everywhere need to be aware that all states (and provinces in Canada) have Good Samaritan’s Laws. Most will protect people to follow their instincts in an anaphylaxis emergency, without fear of being sued.

Virginia’s says: “Any person who, in good faith, renders emergency care or assistance, without compensation, to any ill or injured person at the scene of an accident, fire, or any life-threatening emergency … shall not be liable for any civil damages for acts or omissions resulting from the rendering of such care or assistance.”

We who are familiar in our daily lives with food allergies clearly need to help educate the educators at our local schools. When you impress upon your child’s teachers the seriousness of the allergy, don’t forget to also stress that they need not fear the auto-injector nor the medication that’s in it.

As a community, we have to convey that you don’t wait to see what the ambulance worker will think or to see if the reaction will get worse. By the time the ambulance arrived for Amarria, she was in cardiac arrest. This just didn’t have to be.

Let’s do what we can to change the climate of fear around epinephrine. It’s only a needle, one that will save a child’s life.

Note: Tell your school about a great new learning resource at:
Column published: Jan. 18, 2012

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