After 7-yr-old’s death in Chesterfield, food allergies become national topic

The death of a Chesterfield County girl at her public school last week has centered national attention on how parents and schools should contend with child food allergies. One local woman talks about her own experience and helps others find needed information and resources.

Parents already strive to limit their children’s consumption of ice cream, cookies, and cake. Concerned about the amount of unhealthy calories, saturated fats, and sugars that their kids ingest, parents will fend off their children when they ask and whine for the sweeter things in life. For some parents, however, these sweets present far more dangerous issues: allergies.

“It’s a constant threat for our children,” says Tiffany Glass Ferreira of Chesterfield County, an art teacher and mother of two. The threat is warranted: between 150 – 200 people die each year due to contact with food allergens. “We can never be too safe.”

Her words carry more poignancy in light of a recent allergy-related death in a Chesterfield County school.

Last week, seven-year-old Amaria Johnson died after suffering from an allergic reaction to peanuts while attending Hopkins Elementary School. It’s thought that Johnson was exposed to a peanut allergen during her recess period. The child’s death sparked national media attention on the subject of food allergies, particularly how schools deal with food allergies among their students.

“Every tragedy rattles us,” said Ferreira, speaking on behalf of herself and her husband in a telephone interview. Her four-year-old son (she and her husband also have a two-year-old daughter) is allergic to tree nuts, eggs, and milk.

Snapshot of Food Allergies

  • Roughly 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies
  • Approximately 6 million children have at least one food allergy
  • 90% of allergies are caused by milk,eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, and fish
  • Food allergies are steadily rising
  • There are currently no cures for food allergies

source

Her son’s allergies are so severe that, one day, merely kissing him after enjoying a milkshake was enough to trigger a reaction. “It looked like he was turning into a Klingon,” she says. The most threatening of her son’s allergens, however, are tree nuts. Ferreira uses the phrase “life or death” to describe them.

One of the most common tree nuts is the cashew. About one year ago, her son ate just a “portion of a cashew.” As a result an ambulance was called, and he was given an intravenous drip and a steroid injection.

“It’s panic,” said Ferreira of the particular fear that grips her when her son has an allergic reaction. “It’s as if someone shot me with a gun.” Depending on the amount of tree nuts that her son’s body encounters, ten minutes can decide the boy’s fate. She kept him breathing while an ambulance rushed to her home.

Knowing the severity of her son’s allergies, she and her husband continually practice role playing scenarios with her four-year-old to strengthen his resolve to refuse the food that someone, someday might offer him. Moreover, before attending play dates or birthday parties, Ferreira reminds her son of the potential threat that food poses to him. “There will be food,” she will calmly instruct, as the two walk in. “You can’t touch anything or you will have to go to the hospital.”

While food, particularly the food that her son comes in contact with, occupies so much of her attention and concern, Ferreira deliberately tries “very hard to make everything not about food.” She wants her son to instead fill his childhood with the typical youthful indulgences: friends, sports, and activities.

She said that Richmond is “one of the best places to live with food allergies, despite the recent [Amaria Johnson] tragedy.” She maintains that the best way to learn about food allergies is to “talk to another parent.”

Shortly after Amaria Johnson’s death, Ferreira sought the approval of the Richmond Food Allergy Support Group (RFASG) to publish their resources and ongoing meetings to the web, which she has since done. The first piece of content is a collection of links and sample letters to both national and state legislators regarding food allergy bills that are currently under consideration, including S.1884, known as the School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act 1.

However, despite the constant precautions that she and her husband take as a result of her son’s food allergies, Ferreira does see an upside to her son’s allergens. “It’s taught us to be healthier.”

Before her son was diagnosed with food allergies, Ferreira was largely ignorant of the ingredients that made up her and her family’s diet–to say nothing of healthy eating habits. That’s all changed. She and her family typically consume vegetables, fruits, and homemade bread. “We rely on a lot of vegan cookbooks,” said Ferreira.

Next year, her son will be attending kindergarten in a Chesterfield County public school. Even with the death of Amaria Johnson still on her (and others’) minds, Ferreira is confident in the school system.

“I don’t hesitate to send my son to Chesterfield County,” she said.

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Footnotes

  1. Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) is used to ward of severe symptoms of food allergies. 

 

stock photo by stevendepolo

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

4 comments on After 7-yr-old’s death in Chesterfield, food allergies become national topic

  1. Justin on said:

    Food allergies are terrifying, especially for parents of kids who have serious levels of an allergy.

    One thing I think is important to do whenever I look at “we need to do more to prevent this death!” stories is to keep in mind the overall mortality numbers to keep things in context before we go out and do anything. About 6,000 kids between the age of 5 and 14 die each year in the US, which works out to about 15 per 100,000. A bit more than half succumb to disease, about a third die of accidents (mostly motor vehicle accidents), and the rest are divided into murder, suicide, and a few other things. Every single one of those deaths is terrifying and should be prevented as much as we can.

    The problem, though, is that it’s hard to see how to simply prevent those things. Maybe if everyone knew in context how huge a toll car accidents were taking, they would drive more safely, and that would help. I always think there’s more we could do to prevent suicides, but it’s so hard to figure out what.

    On the other hand, when it comes to food allergies, it seems like medications could help if they are administered quickly enough. You can’t always prevent every tragedy as much as you’d wish you could. But simple things like having people who know CPR and having an AED around are things we all do to keep schools safer. Seems to me that taking more steps to keep the right medication at school is a pretty reasonable thing we could be doing.

    Here are the stats I looked at. There are some good graphs in there of mortality rates reducing over time which are nice to see, if you want something positive.

    http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr58/nvsr58_19.pdf

  2. Hi Justin,

    I agree, mortality numbers for food allergies are low ~ but if I take my son to the grocery store and sample a cookie, the mortality risk is high. If I don’t have his emergency medicine ready to administer, his risk of his death would be 99%. So for us, it’s not about mortality rate, it’s about mortality risk.

    We don’t live in fear, because we’ve learned to be prepared – thanks to Richmond’s Food Allergy Support Group and Resources provided by the Food Allergy Anaphylaxis Network.

    However, this tragedy deserves national attention because:

    1. It was preventable.
    2. Schools are not currently equipped to respond to unexpected food allergy reactions.
    3. National Legislation was proposed in November 2011 to prevent this exact situation from occurring:
    http://www.foodallergy.org/page/school-access-to-emergency-epinephrine-act1
    4. It was too late for Amaria.

    I’m speaking out because I hope the national attention leads to action, with Virginia becoming the first state to require EpiPens for all schools. With 1 in 16 children diagnosed with a food allergy, it’s only a matter of time before the next child needs it.

  3. Kate on said:

    I’m from Richmond, VA, and I think we also have to keep in mind that teachers are expected to be daycare specialists, nurses, therapists, problem solvers…. anything but educators. It has been more and more often recently that teachers are held responsible for our childrens’ lives. We must educate our non-allergic children as much as our allergic children to the dangers of offering and eating food with unknown ingredients. In my childrens’ school, a child has the choice of the listed menu item or a PBJ sandwich. Never have I heard of a child in their school having an allergic reaction to a food product, but I think it’s because the children already knew what they shouldn’t eat.

  4. green venom on said:

    Let’s assume I have a peanut allergy and a bully in school knew about it and decided to use it against me, now come there are no laws against someone (the bully) threating to hurt me by using my allergies against me. I mean some allergies are deadly others such as celiac disease don’t show up for days/weeks/months, but when someone intentionally threats to hurt a person by using their allergies against them, that should be legally be called attempted assault or assault, so why is there no law in this modern world of ours to help protect those person’s with allergies.

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