Summer Camp Allergy Policy is All Wrong

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Published: July 10, 2012

We’ve all heard the expression “a mother’s work is never done,” and as the mother of three young kids, I couldn’t agree more. But what rings even truer for me is “there’s never a day off for a food allergy mom.” My work as mom to 10-year-old Nina – the oldest of my three kids and the only one with a food allergy – is never “done” in a way that it is for my younger two, Daniella, age 8, and Mateo, age 3.

For Daniella and Mateo, a playdate is just a playdate. A field trip is a field trip. A summer camp is an exciting new opportunity: a time to make friends, spend time outdoors and learn new skills. For Nina, it’s a potential minefield. How do I make sure she has safe foods to eat? Who will step in if something goes wrong? Who will know where her epinephrine is? Who can I trust to not hesitate to use it? Most importantly: what do I do to make sure I get her back home safe and sound?

Summer camps make me more nervous than school, field trips, play dates and other activities because, in my experience, the counselors are often very young and the days are not always very structured. There’s more movement from one activity to another, less routine, less experienced supervision – it all leaves room for error.

Most troubling of all is an emerging trend I’ve noticed in the last couple of years that I hadn’t encountered in my previous six years working on food allergy safety: the reluctance of some summer camps to administer an epinephrine auto-injector, the only life-saving medication available to our kids with food allergies.

Known as the “guiding hand policy”, many food allergy families have encountered summer camp programs that have adopted a practice whereby their employees are told not to administer epinephrine directly to a child in need and instead to make the child hold the auto-injector, so that he or she is technically self-administering the medication. At most, employees are instructed to “guide the hand” of the child experiencing anaphylaxis.

Next page: We can change these wrongheaded policies