Food Allergy Awareness Month: A Cautionary Tale

Photo: KXTV
Photo: KXTV

The month of May has been declared Food Allergy Awareness Month by the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) as a means of bringing widespread attention to the severity and prevalence of food allergies. It is possible to be allergic to almost any type of food, but there are eight prominent foods that stand out as the main allergens: wheat, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, soy and dairy. Over 15 million Americans live with a food allergy, which is a serious and potentially deadly medical condition. For this vast group of people, every day is a challenge to avoid the allergens that may cause reactions serious enough to require a trip to the hospital.

Food Allergies Are Very Real, and Very Serious

Food allergies are becoming more common, and the symptoms can often be managed with proper avoidance of allergens and proper medical care. Sometimes, however, even the most careful and prepared can be caught off-guard and face a serious reaction. A recent example that highlights the concerns of all families of children with food allergies took place in July of 2013, when a young girl suffered a fatal allergic reaction to peanut butter.

The young teen, named Natalie Giorgi, who suffered from a severe allergy to peanuts, was attending a summer camp that she went to every summer along with her parents. According to her parents, Natalie was celebrating with her friends on the last day of camp when she took a bite of a dessert containing small amounts of peanut butter. Natalie spit the bite out immediately, but she had already been exposed to the allergen, and had an anaphylactic reaction soon after.

Natalie’s mom reportedly gave her a dose of Benadryl, as recommended, to combat the onset of symptoms, and for a short while Natalie seemed to be just fine. But after about twenty minutes she vomited and had difficulty breathing. Her father, a medical professional, administered an epinephrine shot, as is the standard and only viable emergency treatment for severe allergic reactions. When the epinephrine shot didn’t work, a second and then a third shot were administered, but to no avail. Her condition deteriorated quickly and she was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital. It was a tragic accident that had an impact on the entire community.

Food Allergies Require Support from Community

Natalie’s story is a cautionary tale about the dangers faced by anyone living with a food allergy. Even after taking all the necessary steps to ensure safety, the risk of exposure from some unknown or unseen source remains a threat. If such exposure does occur, even with an epinephrine injector and Benadryl, there is no guarantee that the symptoms can be brought under control.

The severity of food allergies can easily be underestimated by those unaffected by them. The association of seasonal allergies, which may cause similar symptoms, but aren’t nearly as severe and rarely, if ever, life threatening, can also play a role in the ambiguities surrounding food allergies. People who suffer from common seasonal allergies may notice relatively mild symptoms like rash, bloating, or itchy throat, and because of the prevalence of seasonal allergies (often just referred to as “allergies”) many people may assume that food allergies and seasonal allergies are equally mild and therefore not a major health concern. This is not the case, however, and to ensure the safety of 15 million Americans, including 6 million school-aged children, the entire community should be supportive of food allergy awareness.

Natalie’s story has already strongly affected the community she left behind, and her parents are making every effort possible to ensure that her story teaches a valuable lesson about handling food allergies properly, and how schools, restaurants, camps and other social services can be more vigilant in their efforts to ensure the protection of children and adults at risk of food allergen exposure.

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