Epidemic of Allergy Hype

in Gwen Smith: From the Editor's Desk
Published: July 2, 2010

When a Harvard social scientist equated the measures taken by schools to accommodate food allergies with mass hysteria – the media ate it up.

Perhaps it was the “emperor has no clothes” syndrome, gotcha journalism or simple contrarianism, but Dr. Nicholas Christakis’s article in the British Medical Journal got columnists and reporters buzzing in a way that no press release on a food allergy breakthrough could do. Whoa, the chorus of discontent seemed to say: “It’s all a lot of needless fuss.”

For those of us who live daily with food allergies, and who know otherwise, the hype about allergy “hysteria” and the clever headlines: “This Allergies Hysteria is Just Nuts,” “Nut Allergies – A Yuppie Invention” and “Everyone’s Gone Nuts” have been disturbing to witness.

In her article “Backlash Boards the Bus,” in the Spring 2009 issue, Allergic Living Senior Editor Claire Gagné investigates the media fallout from the Christakis article and the growing “fashion” of dismissing genuine food allergy concerns as the misguided over-reactions of nervous parents and educators. As well, she delves into an aspect of food allergy that I’ve long found perturbing: why this disease is the subject of so much disbelief.

As someone who has experienced anaphylaxis, I sometimes find it odd to have a condition that gives rise to so much doubt. I have a niece who’s type 1 diabetic. As she astutely points out: “Nobody has ever said to me, ‘I think you’re faking it with that insulin pump.'”

But as Gagné says in her article, when you’re dealing with food – the very substance that keeps us alive and is tied not just to human health but to all our rituals, celebrations and socializing, you’re into different territory. One that people find a personal stake in – and that certainly seems the case when it comes to what’s in a child’s lunch bag.

Christakis contended that the “extreme responses” of schools and school communities to allergy risks show the signs of “mass psychogenic illness” – that’s mass hysteria. Yet in four years of covering issues related to food allergies, I have watched as parent advocates and politicians pressed ahead painstakingly to achieve school anaphylaxis laws in places such as Ontario, Manitoba, New York and New Jersey. Extreme responses, hysteria? Hardly.

The school anaphylaxis laws aim to reduce potential exposures to a few major food allergy triggers and mandate regular training for staff on emergency procedures and auto-injector use. They have come into being due to the rapid rise in the incidence of food allergies. It might seem exciting to suggest otherwise, but these laws have been framed after numerous democratic meetings, consultations with allergists and educators, and much consideration about what’s fair to ask of others. They didn’t just pop out of a few overheated imaginations.

I’ll grant the professor this – you will find some parents of allergic kids who are too anxiety-ridden (and this magazine has written about the risks of transferring such anxiety to children). But I contend that they are the minority, and that it’s really easy to find food allergic kids who are proud participants in their classes and on school teams. As for an epidemic of anxiety within the schools – where is the evidence of that?

What I see, especially in comments posted on the Internet, is the general public becoming confused about what to believe about food allergies. And who can blame them, given the recent commentaries. My hope is that Claire Gagné’s article will provide those of you receiving questions at your children’s schools with the full picture to show to others. That should help them to separate facts and hyperbole.

With luck, this tempest in a lunch bag won’t set back any of the good work that’s been done to help protect allergic students in their schools. It’s time to accept that the rise of food allergies is the new reality, and move forward with making schools safe places for all students.

First published in Allergic Living magazine, Spring 2009.
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