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Op-ed: Food allergies are a silent killer

By Michelle Fogg

First Published May 14 2014 08:59 am • Last Updated May 14 2014 03:20 pm

Pizza, pretzels, birthday cake, brownies, doughnuts. Popular and seemingly harmless foods loved by children everywhere, right? Wrong!

Lying dormant beside the sugar-laden and processed ingredients usually found in these foods is a much less familiar threat. Who has the power to provoke this sleeping giant to wreak havoc, you ask? Take a good look around you. One in 13 of our children do. Almost 70,000 Utah children with food allergies! But, unlike a fairy tale, these stories don’t always have a happy ending.

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My thoughts have been filled with the images and stories of a community in St. George who mourned the tragic loss of their sweet boy. Tanner Henstra was an active, vibrant, funny, 11-year-old son, brother, classmate, friend, cousin, grandson, and team wrestler.

He had a diagnosed food allergy to peanuts but unknowingly bit into a peanut butter-filled pretzel while playing at a friend’s house a year ago. He did have epinephrine (adrenaline) prescribed to him but it was not immediately accessible. This very powerful life-saving medication was left at home.

As his mom rushed him home to get it, the sleeping giant awoke causing a brisk cascade of symptoms, and it was tragically too late. His loss not only affected his friends and family but his entire community. Waves of shock and grief also spread quickly to other food allergy families and advocates nationwide.

A couple of months later, another young girl died on the last day of a family summer camp in California after eating a treat that contained peanut butter.

I have cried tears of sadness and mourned with these families. Then I get angry. Why do our kids have to suffer preventable tragedies? Why don’t people understand the serious and potentially life-threatening nature of food allergies? Do people know that food allergy reactions send someone to the emergency room every three minutes in this country?

This week marks Food Allergy Awareness Week, created by Food Allergy Research & Education nearly 20 years ago to bring attention to a serious public health issue. And it is clear that awareness and education are still very much needed.

The term "allergy" has become so diluted and casually thrown around that people don’t understand the difference between intolerance and a serious risk to your life. While dining out I’ve had wait staff ask me if my daughter gets a tummy ache if she consumes milk. No, she could die if she has milk.

We have to unite and advocate for food labeling laws, school accommodations, access to emergency medications, the ability to safely eat out at restaurants. And we have to deal with social isolation and exclusion as people use food as a way to bond all around us.

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I don’t mind lifestyle choices that experiment with different diets for optimal health, but I can’t help commenting when people throw the word "allergy" around. It puts others’ lives at risk because people get confused and don’t understand what allergy really means. With the epidemic rise in food allergies over the past two decades, and the increasing number of people who are dying preventable deaths, we can’t waste any more time trying to get it straight.

Thank you to all of the parents, doctors, school nurses, teachers, neighbors, family members and friends who do "get it" and for all that you do to keep our kids safe and included. It definitely takes a village to raise a child and it’s going to require that same village rise up together to slay this killer giant called food allergy.

Michelle Fogg is president and founder of the Utah Food Allergy Network.


Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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