Guest Column: Food allergies on the rise: Illinois kids need to be protected

By Dennis L. Vickers, M.D., MPH
President, Illinois Chapter, American Academy of Pediatrics

Odds are you know someone with a food allergy. For reasons not yet fully understood by the medical community, food allergies have become more prevalent in recent years, and their effects can be devastating. Because first-time allergic reactions are most likely to occur in childhood, it is critically important that we safeguard our kids against this very real threat.

One in 13 children now suffers from some type of food allergy, and of those affected, nearly 40 percent suffer from allergies that are severe to life-threatening. These allergies are the leading cause of anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can result in death, which accounts for more than 300,000 hospital visits by children every year.

And since children spend so much of their time in class, it should be no surprise that 25 percent of first-time anaphylactic reactions among children occur in school. This harrowing statistic proves we must have a safety net in place for the children who are not aware they have a food allergy, in case the worst happens.

The tragic case of Katelyn Carlson, the Chicago student who lost her life to a severe anaphylactic reaction in 2010, was a powerful wake-up call for parents, teachers and health care providers across Illinois. The day she died, Katelyn was not carrying epinephrine, the life-saving medication used to treat anaphylactic reactions. Since her death, Illinoisans have spoken out in favor of allowing schools to carry epinephrine for kids like Katelyn, and this grassroots movement led to real change last fall.

The Illinois General Assembly passed legislation in August 2011, allowing schools to voluntarily maintain a supply of emergency epinephrine auto-injectors (commonly known as EpiPens) for students who have forgotten their prescription at home or who do not have a known allergy.

Prior to this, only students with a personal prescription could carry epinephrine at school, and undiagnosed children who experienced a sudden reaction had to wait for emergency services to arrive, thus losing precious life-saving minutes. While the Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (ICAAP) applauds and celebrates the intentions of the new legislation, many physicians are unaware of the legislation or reluctant to prescribe epinephrine to Illinois schools.

Some physicians and nurses believe they will be held liable should a child have an adverse reaction to the epinephrine — a belief that is entirely unfounded and inaccurate. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) even issued a statement to emphasize that under the new law, a physician who provides a standing protocol or prescribes a supply of emergency epinephrine to a school is to incur no liability, except for willful and wanton conduct, for any injury arising out of the use of an epinephrine auto-injector.

The legislation also clearly states that a school’s employees will incur no liability for the administration of epinephrine, provided the agent acted in good faith.

ICAAP calls on the entire medical community in Illinois, including our 2,000 members and their colleagues, as well as school officials and parents across the state, to learn more about this legislation, and to protect our children and begin stocking life-saving epinephrine in Illinois schools. Let’s not wait until it’s too late.

Dennis L. Vickers, M.D., MPH is president of the Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

From the June 27-July 3, 2012, issue

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