I often write about poisons and toxins that kill. After all, I write about murder and what better way to kill someone than with a substance that’s lethal but not so easy to detect.
Such scenes make for good fiction reading, but a devastating reality is the fact that normal foods can kill also. We’ve seen news reports of contaminated foods with lethal bacteria being recalled when people become ill after consuming them. However, there’s another side to the story of lethal foods.
Food allergies cause minor and sometimes severe allergic reactions, but a recent visit to my allergist convinced me that the problem is much more prevalent than I ever realized. In fact, the statistics are staggering. Food allergies affect over 15 million Americans, and every three minutes a food allergy sends an American to the emergency room.
One in 13 children are included in this category—roughly two in an average American classroom—and nearly 40% of these children have already experienced a life-threatening food reaction, called anaphylaxis. That means the reaction to the offending food caused a rapidly progressing allergic reaction that, if left untreated, would likely have lead to death. The symptoms include rash development, a weak and rapid heartbeat, plummeting blood pressure, swelling in the oral mucosa and a lethal closure of the airways.
Researchers tell us that the numbers of people with food allergies are increasing at a significant rate—an 18% jump in the decade between 1997 and 2007—and that peanut allergies have tripled. Besides peanuts, some of the more common causes of severe food allergies include shellfish, wheat, soy, milk and eggs.
Scientists don’t have definitive answers for why this spike is happening, but there are some viable theories. As America continues to become a “cleaner society”, our children are not exposed to the irritants that older generations encountered and adapted to as they progressed through childhood.
Regarding the rapid increase in peanut allergies, scientists theorize that roasted peanuts may be part of the problem. In other countries with lower rates of peanut allergies, peanuts are often boiled and children in those countries begin consuming the ground-up food at an early age—at a few months old rather than at three or four years old, like in America.
So what do we do with this new information? There are injections that can be given to desensitize a person to many environmental allergies—like cedar, oak, dog, cat, etc. But, like many insect allergies, there are no desensitizing injections that are available for food allergies.
Presently, studies are being conducted with children who are highly allergic to specific foods. Small quantities of the offending food are introduced, with progressively larger portions, under controlled conditions in an attempt to desensitize the child to the severe allergy. But these treatments are still in the experimental stages and inconclusive at this point.
In 2012 a new organization was established to address the need for a cure of lethal food allergies. The organization is called Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) and it was created from a merger between the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) and the Food Allergy Initiative (FAI). FARE combines the expertise of FAAN’s food allergy information resources and programs with FAI’s large private source of funding for food allergy research.
The focus of FARE is initially increased awareness of this growing problem and the need for increased education about the impact of food allergies. But, by combining advocacy at all levels of government with world-class research to advance treatment options, the evolution into finding cure options can begin.
Having lived through a severe, almost lethal allergic medication reaction when I was a child, I have personal knowledge that anaphylaxis is a frightening experience, one that will stay with you the rest of your life.
When a severe food allergy leads to anaphylaxis in a child, the entire family is impacted. The best prevention is knowledge and preparation. To that end, every parent should go to Anaphylaxis 101 for a short education in food allergies, what symptoms to look for and what to do if a severe reaction should occur.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!