Food allergies in Canada: teach children to be careful, not fearful
When it comes to food allergies we need to empower our children
A sensational story was in the news last week, involving acorns, the proposed removal of oak trees, and the safety of students with allergies to tree nuts. As the parent of a teenager at risk for anaphylaxis - the most serious form of allergic reaction - and as an advocate representing Anaphylaxis Canada, it is the kind of story I find troubling. In its sensationalism the story risks diminishing the seriousness of food allergies and falsely portraying a community living in fear. Equally important, it sends the wrong message that risk cannot be managed, but must be eliminated – an unachievable goal.
Food allergies are a growing public health issue in Canada with increasing public awareness and curiosity. Recent research revealed approximately 2.5 million Canadians report being allergic to one or more foods. The idea that eating even a small amount of a perfectly healthy food could put someone in hospital, or worse, end their life, is surreal. As there is no known cure for anaphylaxis, avoidance of allergenic foods is the only means for people at risk to stay safe.
Since we all have to eat, it is understandable how some people, particularly parents of young children with food allergies, can have feelings of anxiety.
When dealing with food allergies however – where there are already so many unknowns, such as how severe a reaction will be – it is important to rely on the best available evidence. In the case of acorns, allergists quoted in media reports indicated they would have to be ingested to cause a serious reaction. In fact, not all children with tree nut allergies are allergic to acorns and acorns are not one of the more common tree nut allergies, such as almonds or pecans.
This context is critical for families and the wider community determining the best course of action for keeping kids with food allergies safe.
As the mother of a child with multiple food allergies, I understand the challenges of not giving in to the temptation to think you can protect your child at all times and accepting the reality that allergens may be found in any environment.
The overarching principle is to teach children to be careful, not fearful, of allergenic foods.
Like in so many aspects of life, education is the key factor in being able to manage safely with food allergies. In our family, we have had to adopt age-specific strategies in teaching our son how to identify several foods to which he is allergic, where they may be found, and how to avoid them.
There are simple, universal steps all parents of children with food allergies can take to teach their kids to stay safe. These include being properly diagnosed by an allergist, reading food labels, never eating food if its ingredients are unknown, and always carrying an epinephrine auto-injector and wearing a MedicAlert bracelet.
Parents also need to enlist the support of friends, family, and teachers so that they can help reduce the risk of an allergic reaction and know what to do in an emergency.
In 2005 Anaphylaxis Canada celebrated the passage of Sabrina’s Law, Ontario legislation requiring all schools in the province to have an anaphylaxis policy in place which includes training for teachers about food allergies and how to administer life-saving epinephrine medication. The law, named for Sabrina Shannon, who died after having an allergic reaction at school, is widely supported by parents and educators. In fact, other provinces have moved forward with similar legislation or policies.
As a parent, these school measures gave me comfort that the steps we were taking at home to empower my son were being complemented by reasonable supports in the wider community.
Since the inception of Sabrina’s Law in Ontario not a single child in the province has died due to an allergic reaction at school.
Now that is a sensational story.
Laurie Harada is Executive Director of Anaphylaxis Canada
Return to Hot topics