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Gwen Smith: From the Editor's Desk

Who’s to Blame for Another Allergy Tragedy?

Virginia’s Chesterfield County police have determined that there was no criminal negligence on the part of the school personnel in the tragic food-allergy death of 7-year-old Amarria Johnson on January 2, 2012.

Also cleared of criminal wrongdoing, thankfully, was the child on the school playground who, not knowing of the allergy, handed Amarria the fateful peanut – which Amarria then popped in her mouth and swallowed. I can only imagine the particular hell that child, and also the teacher and health-clinic aide who attempted to help Amarria in the short period before her death all must feel today.

Of course, I wish they had all acted differently that day. I especially wish that clinic aide had taken one of the auto-injectors available at the school, but prescribed to other children, and ripped off the safety cap, injected it into Amarria’s thigh as she descended into anaphylaxis – an injection that most likely would have saved her life. But it was against the school’s rules to do so, possibly against the law as epinephrine in Virginia, as in so many states, can be taken to school, but can only be administered to the person named on the prescription label.

In the online aftermath of this tragedy, some are admonishing Amarria’s mother Laura Pendleton, asking why she hadn’t provided an epinephrine auto-injector to the school. But I can’t find it in my heart to blame a mother mourning the loss of her little girl. In her shoes, what mother wouldn’t already be plagued by self-recrimination and “if only I hads”. Besides, we don’t even know whether it was the school’s fault or Pendleton’s oversight that Amarria didn’t have an auto-injector at school.

As CNN reported, Pendleton has said she asked a school official about sending an auto-injector in with her daughter, but was told, no, please just keep it at home. The school has said only that there was no device provided for the child. It gets murky and he said/she said. The only point of raising this is: a big part of the preventing future tragedies has to be that epinephrine is available at all times to any child at risk of anaphylaxis at school.

Now here’s where I do find fault, with all of us as an allergy community and with the lack of communication about the importance of the auto-injector, most commonly known being the EpiPen brand. As a community of parents and advocates, we spend an awful lot of time talking about the fact that an allergen like peanut can kill, but we don’t give equal time to talking about epinephrine, the drug that can turn off the anaphylactic reaction like a faucet.

Nor do we remember that we need to continuously impress upon others the relative safety of that drug and, thirdly, the absolute need for speed when a food or sting allergy reaction is in progress. We grow so familiar with this knowledge that we at times forget to share it. Let’s consciously change that.

Next: A lifesaver of a drug