By Seth Richardson
Eight-year-old Riley Mers and her peanut-sniffing service dog Rock’O hit the big time March 2nd with an appearance on the ABC evening news. As reported by The Gazette’s Brian Newsome in the February 16th edition, Riley can breath easier now that her Portuguese water dog is on the job. Rock’O’s nose is Riley’s protector, keeping her safe from accidental exposure to peanuts, something that could easily kill her.
Severe peanut allergies are serious business for sufferers because peanuts are a ubiquitous food in America. We should not minimize the danger to people like Riley who genuinely have a deadly anaphylactic reaction to peanut. But neither should we go into a peanut panic merely because there are unfortunate people like Riley in the world.
Too often, the reaction to sometimes dubious claims about peanut and other food allergies are blown far out of proportion by individuals and groups who may have ulterior motives, or may simply be misguided. No few school districts have simply banned peanuts from the schools entirely in order to favor a single student who claims a peanut allergy, or just to avoid all potential liability.
This might seem like a reasonable reaction, one of those “do it for the children” moments, but things are not quite as simple as they might appear. The fact is that the number of people who die from allergic food reactions each year is incredibly small, and keeping peanuts away from your kids may be doing more harm than good.
The numbers of people who have any kind of food allergy, and most of the time such reactions are mild to severe, but very rarely fatal, is subject to much speculation. Dr. Darshak Sanghavi reported in the Boston Globe in January, 2006 that a researcher at the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) said that while about a quarter of parents believe their child has a food allergy, in reality only about 4 percent actually do. The Archives of Internal Medicine reported in 2004 that the chance of an average person of suffering from food-induced anaphylaxis is 4 per 100,000 per year, about the same number of people who die from lightning strikes.
And it seems as if the problem is getting worse. Between 1997 and 2002, The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reported that rates of peanut allergies among children had doubled, from 0.4 percent of the population to 0.8 percent, although the data was not verified by tests. In another 2003 study from the Mount Sinai Department of Pediatrics, researchers conducted a telephone survey to determine the prevalence of self-reported peanut allergies among the general population as a follow-up to a 1997 study. The study, which surveyed more than 13,000 individuals, concluded that between 1997 and 2002, the reported rate increased from 0.4 percent in 1997 to 0.8 percent in 2002.
The FAAN is an advocacy group for food allergy sufferers that works hard to educate people about food allergies, but appears to have a tendency to overstate the actual risks. The most-often heard claim is “100 to 200” people per year die of food allergies. But Meredith Broussard, a journalist in Philadelphia, in her December, 2008 article in the Huffington Post says that the CDC reported only 11 deaths from all food allergies in 2005, and Dr. Rahul K. Parikh, in a February, 2009 column at Salon.com wrote that deaths by food allergy reported by the CDC for 2004 was 14, and that between 1994 and 1999, only 33 such deaths were reported.
But here’s the real twist. Another study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology by the King’s College, London in November 2008 compared peanut allergies in Jewish children in the UK and in Israel. Results indicated that children in the UK, where Jewish children virtually never get peanuts, are almost ten times more likely to develop peanut allergy than Jewish children in Israel, where peanuts are a common food even for infants 8 to 14 months old. The study asks the question whether the early introduction of peanut during infancy, rather than avoiding peanuts, will prevent the development of peanut allergy. This study seems to militate for exposing kids to peanuts quite early in life, rather than removing peanuts from society.
So, it seems as though all the peanut panic is a bit over-blown. For people like Riley, it’s a very big deal, but for most of us it’s a non-issue, and the precautions that Riley’s parents are taking are the appropriate and reasonable response to a severe, life-threatening peanut allergy. It’s a perfect solution for Riley and for her classmates that doesn’t deprive them of a favorite food and doesn’t put Riley at unreasonable risk.
After all, school isn’t the only place one finds peanuts, and protecting yourself if you have a food allergy is no different from protecting yourself if you have casual sex or you like to walk downtown at night carrying large sums of money and jewelry. It’s up to you to protect yourself, it’s not up to society to forego peanut butter, or anything else, in order to protect you.
Parents, if you think your child has a peanut allergy, then get them tested so you’ll know for sure. If you kids don’t, then by all means feed them peanut butter, and start early, so that they won’t develop one later.
And let’s all support Angel Service Dogs so that kids who are really at risk can afford to live their lives free of the fear of a life-threatening illness.
© 2009 Altnews