Food allergies are part of the modern day school room. Ask just about any teacher, principal and of course school nurse (for schools that still have one) and they’ll tell you that food allergies are among their many daily concerns when it comes to the well-being of students.
Nationwide Children’s Hospital estimates that one in 20 children have a food allergy, so it’s no wonder that school personnel must address this very serious health concern.
It’s serious because a food allergy reaction can result in anaphylaxis, a critical and potentially life-threatening condition. Unrecognized and untreated, such a condition closes the airway and shuts down vital organs. In January a seven-year-old girl in Virginia died from an anaphylactic reaction to her peanut allergy while at school. By the time emergency crews arrived, the first grader was in cardiac arrest.
In April, the governor of Virginia signed a bill requiring public schools to adopt and implement policies to possess and administer epinephrine. Epinephrine can halt anaphylaxis, which can be caused by a variety of foods, medications, exercise or insect stings. The governor of Maryland recently signed similar legislation.
States around the country are reviewing school policy on offering treatment for actual or potential reactions to allergens. This is important because some children may have an undiagnosed allergy to certain foods or to bee stings.
Many children with food allergies carry their own epinephrine auto-injectors, prescribed for their use in case of an adverse reaction. Ohio law allows these children to bring the devices to school and school personnel are trained in their use. At schools in Ohio, auto-injectors can only be used on the children for whom they are prescribed.
The challenge is that there is risk for children who do not yet know they may have allergies to certain foods, or to bee stings. If undiagnosed children end up in anaphylaxis, by law, the school cannot administer an epinephrine treatment.
Food allergy advocates and health professionals such as the Ohio Association of School Nurses are asking lawmakers to consider school policies in Ohio that pertain to epinephrine treatments in schools. They are advocating that Ohio follow other states to allow schools to have an epinephrine treatment available for anyone who needs it.
There are 12 million Americans - including 3 million children - suffering from food allergies, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). The numbers are growing. For people with these allergies, awareness, education and treatment can save lives.
It is reasonable to ensure that our schools are equipped and ready to handle undiagnosed food allergies. Certainly schools cannot be expected to handle every adverse health situation, but knowing that food allergies are prevalent and growing, and that treatment is available, it seems a logical step. Indeed, our public spaces and buildings are ready with defibrillators and basic first aid equipment. Providing epinephrine treatments at our schools is rational, proactive and potentially life-saving.
Kate King is president of the Ohio Association of School Nurses and serves as a school nurse for Columbus City Schools. She is also an adjunct faculty member at The Ohio State University in the School Nurse Licensure Program.