Peanut allergy: Condition gets deserved attention


October 04, 1998|By Mike Burns

FROM THE outset, let me say that I have raced to the hospital emergency room too often to take the matter lightly. My daughter has brought home from school repeated notices from her teacher about the deadly serious matter.

The subject is peanuts. More particularly, the severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) that some people suffer when they accidentally eat a peanut, or are even exposed to peanut skins or the residue of a peanut butter sandwich.

The symptoms aren't the ones you see in allergy-medicine ads: an itchy rash, weepy eyes and runny nose. They are truly frightening: a swollen throat and tongue, constricted airways, a rapidly elevated heartbeat, a dizziness that can turn to shock. Panic is an inevitable concomitant.

Repeated anti-allergen shots, oxygen mask and IV tubes poked into the veins are the typical hospital ER responses to such an attack. People still die each year because they cannot get prompt medical attention.

We are talking about a dangerous, life-threatening condition that is finally getting the attention it deserves. Not just because of greater humanitarian concern, but also because of potential legal liability.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has ordered airlines to set aside peanut-free seating for travelers with the documented allergic condition. Some carriers are replacing peanuts as snacks with pretzels and crackers, recognizing the limited air filtration capabilities of aircraft cabins -- and benefits of lower-fat munchies.

Some schools have banished peanut butter sandwiches from the lunchroom, or are separating cafeteria tables for a peanut-free zone.

Tobacco-like arguments

Naturally, the Southern peanut industry is distressed. Unfair discrimination, violation of consumer choice, not a significant health problem -- the same types of arguments heard from tobacco growers. They don't want to see large markets -- airlines, school cafeterias, group residences -- wiped out by panicked reaction.

What is needed, the peanut promoters urge, is more accurate ingredient labeling to let consumers choose their processed foods.

That's a reasonable idea, but one that has been around for a long time and has been found wanting in practice.

Why? Because food products already list too many ingredients in tiny type on the wrapper or box, such that a consumer can easily overlook one of 30-some items.

Why? Because of cross-contamination of ingredients with peanuts and peanut oils in food processing and storage, so there's no warning of peanut presence on the label. Gift bon bons from a local chocolatier, with no hint of peanuts, produced one of the most harrowing Christmas Eves that I've ever experienced.

Why? Because many children don't read labels, and don't understand the severe consequences for their hypersensitive classmates. A Rhode Island youngster threatened an allergic rTC schoolboy with a handful of peanuts, chasing him mercilessly until friends finally came to the victim's protection.

Why? Because even the oils and fumes from peanuts may constitute a health hazard to a hyperallergic seatmate on an airliner or at a lunch table. Even the most careful allergic person cannot protect against this close encounter of the perilous kind.

More severe allergy

Why? Because peanut allergy is more severe than other food allergies, such as pollen or tomatoes or cow's milk: it immediately threatens life. (The sensitivity is not to all nuts; ineed, the peanut is a legume.)

While official statistics suggest few people actually die from peanut allergy, more cases of reactions are coming to light each year as public awareness increases.

The Food Allergy Network in Fairfax, Va., claims that more than 1 million Americans have peanut allergies, and that about 125 people die each year from food allergies -- mostly from peanuts.

One major advance is the development of a pen with which a victim can easily self-inject anti-allergen medicine (epinephrine) prior to receiving medical treatment. This EpiPen (made in Columbia) has been around for 18 years.

It is a true lifesaver. But only if readily available to the allergic

individual and to informed first aid personnel. That's not always likely these days, but more schools and other institutions are taking steps to have the loaded antidote device on hand for emergencies.

Heightened public attention to and awareness of the problem are helping to save lives. Common sense and caring consideration are making a difference, with minimal inconvenience to people who delight in the tasty goober.

Boy on the brink

There's a little boy in my child's kindergarten class who has severe peanut allergy. He's gone to the brink at least once in his short life. The teacher asked all parents not to send any peanut snacks or lunches to the class.

Everyone responded graciously. The children are especially protective of their friend. As my daughter forcefully reminds us: "Don't send peanuts for snack because Danny will get sick."

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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