Questions remain about the causes and recent increases in the number of children and adults with food allergies. The fact that such allergies are very common in the United States, Canada, Europe and other industrialized countries around the world, however, is undeniable. Contrary to what Times columnist Joel Stein wrote in his Jan. 9 Op-Ed column, “Nut allergies — a Yuppie invention,” anaphylaxis is not brought on by the need for attention by “a parent who needs to feel special.” Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that can be caused by exposure to minuscule quantities of nuts or other food allergens and may even cause death.
The hives, swelling and severe breathing difficulty that people may experience during an allergic reaction are not symptoms of a “psychogenic illness,” but rather an unbelievably frightening and dangerous response of the immune system to certain foods the body misinterprets as harmful. The fact is, food is the leading cause of anaphylaxis outside the hospital setting, and many children and adults die each year because they ate something they thought was safe. Once a reaction begins, no one knows how bad it will be, hence the worry and fear that is part of living with food allergies.
The scientific community is in agreement that more research funding is needed to answer why we see so much food allergy in young children today. We also need better treatment options. Currently, avoidance is the only way to prevent an allergic reaction for a true food allergy.
When you tell the parents of a child with a food allergy that their child could suffer, wind up in the hospital or worse unless they follow strict instructions from a doctor, you begin to understand why parents of children with food allergies are so vigilant. For those parents raising children with food allergies, educating others to take food allergies seriously is vital to preventing a reaction.
Stein says that food allergies kill about as many people a year as lightning strikes, suggesting that we therefore shouldn’t take this medical condition seriously. The point he completely misses -- or worse yet chooses to ignore -- is that deaths are so infrequent only because of this high level of vigilance.
Even more disturbing is Stein’s assertion -- without a shred of evidence to support it -- that “peanut allergies are only an issue in rich, leftist communities.” Perhaps he should speak to the parents of one of my former patients, an African American child from an inner-city area who died of a peanut reaction, to understand just how inaccurate and even hurtful that comment might be.
I care for more than 4,000 children with food allergies, nearly 2,000 of who are allergic to peanuts and nuts. I myself have a lifelong, severe peanut allergy. If Stein were to spend a day in my clinic, he would quickly learn that food allergies are very real, truly dangerous and really do affect families of all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic strata. He would also learn that although food allergies do indeed cause anxiety, the anxiety is legitimate and that in spite of this anxiety, most families have an accurate perspective of the disease and practice a completely appropriate level of vigilance.
Food allergies are not a joke; they are a serious health condition. The concern with articles such as Stein’s is that people will misunderstand food allergies and not take them seriously, putting many people at even greater risk. We have made tremendous strides in providing education about food allergy and we will continue to make progress in spite of Stein’s insulting and inappropriate column.
Robert A. Wood, professor of pediatrics and director of pediatric allergy and immunology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is a member of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network’s medical advisory board.