FRIDAY, Dec. 12 (HealthDay News) -- Peanut and other food allergies are on the rise, with more and more children being diagnosed with potentially life-threatening allergies, and schools are responding by providing nut-free areas.
But, at least one expert wonders if schools are going too far, even creating hysteria over potential nut exposures. What's worse, schools may be perpetuating the problem by limiting exposure to nuts in non-allergic children.
"There's a disproportionate response that may be making things worse. First, by feeding the concern -- if a whole school is declared nut-free, how can you say to children that nuts aren't dangerous? And, second by contributing to sensitization," said Dr. Nicholas Christakis, the author of an editorial in the Dec. 12 issue of the British Medical Journal.
Christakis, an attending physician at Mt. Auburn Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School, Boston, pointed to a recent Israeli study. It found that children exposed to peanuts at a young age appeared to have fewer peanut allergies than those who had a later exposure.
Christakis stressed that he's not saying schools shouldn't make allowances for children with severe allergies. "No one is arguing against reasonable accommodations," he said.
But, some schools take those accommodations too far, Christakis believes. For example, he cited the school district where his children attend school. Recently, that district evacuated a bus full of 10-year-olds because a peanut was found on the floor of the bus.
Such a reaction, he said, makes it appear as if the threat from a peanut is much greater than it actually is. Among the 3.3 million Americans who are allergic to nuts, the overall likelihood of a serious reaction is low. Serious allergic reactions to food cause about 2,000 hospitalizations a year, and 150 deaths.
In comparison, noted Christakis, 50 people die from bee stings, 100 from lightning strikes and a whopping 45,000 from motor vehicle accidents. Another 10,000 people suffer traumatic brain injuries due to sports participation and 2,000 people drown every year, said Christakis. Yet, he said, no one has called for an end to athletics.
Other experts weighed in on the issue.
"This editorial really shows how emotional the issue really is, and it always goes back to education and getting people to understand perspective," said Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and CEO of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. "Until there's a cure, we need to do everything we can to keep these kids safe."
Dr. Jennifer Appleyard, chief of allergy and immunology at St. John Hospital in Detroit, said she'd like to see schools focus more on emergency planning for kids with severe allergies, because it's impossible to make anyone's environment completely nut-free. "Having a nut-free table, or even a nut-free school, gives you a false sense of security. It's like living in a very safe neighborhood -- robberies happen even in the safest neighborhoods," Appleyard said.
"Schools need to have policies in place for treatment. Teachers, aides, etc. should be trained in using an Epi-Pen [against anaphylactic reactions], and school officials need to make sure everyone knows what to do in an emergency," she said, adding, "that any emergency plan in place should be practiced, like fire drills are."
Learn more about nut and peanut allergies from the Nemours Foundation's KidsHealth.
SOURCES: Nicholas Christakis, M.D., attending physician, Mt. Auburn Hospital, and professor, Harvard Medical School, Boston; Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and CEO, Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network; Jennifer Appleyard, M.D., chief, allergy and immunology, St. John Hospital, Detroit; Dec. 12, 2008, British Medical Journal