When I first told my mother about the
bill President Barack Obama signedthis week to increase the availability of epinephrine in schools, her reaction was one of good-natured cynicism toward politicians in Washington.
“Nothing changes ’till someone high level gets into office!!” she said.
She was referring to Malia Obama, the president’s 15-year-old daughter, who he revealed for the first time at the bill signing is allergic to peanuts.
“I just want to thank all of the outstanding legislators who are here and advocates,” Obama said. “This is something that will save children’s lives. Some people may know that Malia actually has a peanut allergy. She doesn’t have asthma, but obviously making sure that EpiPens are available in case of emergency in schools is something that every parent can understand.”
Full disclosure: This reporter is deathly allergic to peanuts. And even though my mother is exasperated that it took this long, this law seems like an important change. It would have saved her a lot of stress with me growing up.
The bill — called the “School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act” — amends the Public Health Service Act and encourages states to maintain a supply of emergency epinephrine and have plans in place for trained personnel to administer it. If states comply, they’ll receive additional preference for federal children’s asthma-treatment grants.
It’s a sign of progress, and probably of the general non-controversial nature of this law, that it passed both chambers of this Congress without any flare-ups. It’s also a natural reaction to the fact that, for a variety of speculated reasons, food allergies have become much more common over the past couple of decades.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2008 that the food allergy rate in children under 18 flew up 18% from 1997 to 2007. In 2007, a significant 3.9% of children under 18 had some sort of food allergy.
I was diagnosed with a severe allergy to peanuts when I was 18 months old. It was one of those things that just popped up — I used to eat peanut butter when I was younger. I don’t remember it, but apparently I blew up nearly twice my size. I’m pretty lucky to be alive today.
Since as long as I can remember, I’ve carried around an EpiPen. Two of them, in fact, in a socket that always elicits a look of surprise from unsuspecting people.
Somehow, I’ve never had to use it. It’s probably more luck than anything — and if it is anything it’s owed to the vigilance of my aforementioned mother and father when I was younger.
Schools didn’t make it easy. There are the obvious reasons — peanut butter and jelly is probably the most common thing for young kids to eat at lunch. It’s hard for schools to really do anything about that, even though some parents have tried.
Then there are the patently ridiculous reasons. One time when I was in pre-school, my teacher (who I will not name, because she did not realise at that point that I would write for a living) flipped out at my mother for even suggesting that, you know, maybe we shouldn’t do that project that involved making a bird feeder with peanut butter. It wasn’t until middle school — when a family friend was coincidentally the school nurse — that my family felt more comfortable.
Attitudes have gotten better since then, but they’re still not perfect. John Lehr, the CEO of the group Food Allergy Research and Education, is right when he says that the bill is important in that it brings “national attention to the need to protect students with food allergies.”
It’s important for children with other allergies — notably, the eight foods that account for 90% of food allergies, according to the CDC. It also brings more awareness to kids (like me) who have asthma in school. And like Obama said, it undoubtedly has the potential to save a lot of lives.
Now, let’s talk about serving peanuts on aeroplanes…
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