Anaphylaxis--a sudden and sometimes fatal allergic reaction--can be a terrifying reality for some children. While many things can cause Anaphylactic shock in children with allergies—among them milk, sesame seeds, balloons, and insect venom—nuts have become synonymous with Anaphylaxis. Most elementary schools in Ontario have a nut-free policy. They ask children not to come to school with foods that may contain nuts to protect children with allergies. But some schools have taken it a step further - searching kids’ lunchboxes, banning any food prepared in a restaurant, and asking parents not to send food for birthdays or holidays.
While nut bans are the norm, they aren’t mandated by law. Sabrina’s Law was enacted in 2006 after Sabrina Shannon died from Anaphylactic shock caused by exposure in her school. It mandates that school boards have an anaphylaxis policy in place, and reduce the risk of exposure to allergens. This is interpreted differently by each school board and even schools, meaning that there is little consistency from one school to the next. Experts argue that blanket bans don’t serve to educate a school community about the danger of anaphylaxis, or eliminate unintended exposure; they often just get peoples backs up.
“You can ban foods all you like,” says Monika Gibson, Ontario Co-Coordinator of the Allergy/Asthma Information Association. “Accidents happen, so really you need to educate people, so that they will buy in and help to minimize the risks for these children.”
“Each school has a different environment and school population,” Gibson says. “A policy should take into account all the variables, like if all children eat together in a cafeteria or in various classrooms, the age of the children at risk, and what kinds of allergies are present.”
So how can we protect kids who are at risk, while being fair to those who aren’t? Here are some tips for schools and parents to create a policy that will work for everyone:
Create an Allergen-Aware Environment
Ensure that school councils and administration communicate with parents about the dangers of Anaphylaxis, and ask for co-operation from parents to help create a safe environment. Be specific to your school’s environment and challenges; a form letter gets little attention. Have an expert speak and consult with the parent community, and ensure that children with severe allergies wear a medic-alert bracelet.
Minimize the Risk
Minimizing risk doesn’t necessarily mean banning food. It may mean an appeal to parents to keep products containing nuts out of the school. It could mean setting aside a special place for children who choose to bring nut products to school, or creating an allergy-safe zone for children with allergies. Lunch supervisors should know the students who are at risk, and enforce a no-sharing policy of food, utensils, containers, and straws with those children. Children with allergies should only eat food that has been prepared at home.
Promote Thorough Hand-Washing
Since even a small amount of residual food can cause a reaction, a simple hand-washing upon arrival at school and after nutrition breaks can help to prevent cross contamination. Wiping of eating surfaces and toys after use is also preventative.
Ensure Staff and Volunteers are Trained
Anyone who comes into contact with children at risk should be trained to know the symptoms of Anaphylaxis, and know how to administer medication. Any medication should be readily accessible and stored in an organized manner.
For more information about anaphylaxis management and policies in schools:
Canadian Society of Allergies and Clinical Immunology
Allergy/Asthma Information Association
Allergy Safe Communities
Canada Safety Council