Early in her career, Pam Parker, nurse at Feltwell Elementary School at RAF Feltwell, England, kept a treat in her office for pupils who came to school without eating a breakfast.
“I used to give them peanut butter and crackers for breakfast,” she said. “I can’t do that anymore.”
In recent years, the incidence of food allergies in children has increased. A study published in the December issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that the number of children with an allergy to peanuts doubled between 1997 and 2002, from 0.4 percent to 0.8 percent.
Barbara Urra, nurse at David Farragutt Elementary School in Rota, Spain, said things have changed since she became a school nurse in 1987.
“We never heard of peanut allergies,” she said.
The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, a source of information for families with food allergies, estimates that one child out of 125 has a peanut allergy, which is the most common and most likely to cause anaphylaxis, a severe reaction.
Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder of the network, said, “If a school does not currently have a child with a food allergy in their school register, they can count on getting one.”
Food allergies can be life-threatening, but for young children, they are also deflating factors in quality of life.
Dr. (Maj.) Chip Webb, an allergist at the hospital at RAF Lakenheath, England, said one reason offered by experts is hygiene, but not what you think.
“We’re too clean,” he said.
Our bodies are rarely exposed to unclean food, so our immune systems may react to invaders — peanuts, for example — not normally seen as a problem.
Webb said a European study has found children raised on farms, where the environment is less clean, have fewer allergies than their city-bred counterparts.
School nurses, who must keep alert eyes for students with allergies, have their theories.
“I think there’s a nutrition connection,” Urra said. “Nutrition is very dear to a school nurse’s heart.”
She said nutrition among youngsters has gone down as availability of fast foods has gone up. And, she said, the prevalence of food allergies has gone up, as well.
“I do think we’re seeing more,” she said.
Susan Vanderbeek, nurse at Vicenza High School in Italy, also said diet plays a part. She, too, said the diet of a typical student is not what it used to be.
“My high school kids are in [the nurse’s office] all the time with stomachaches and headaches,” she said. “You say, ‘What did you have for lunch?’ They say, ‘Pizza.’ ”
Munoz-Furlong said the theory of an environment that is too clean is a common one and makes sense.
“We’re seeing an increase in allergies in industrialized countries,” she said. “That’s where the theory comes from.”
Countries that battle malaria and tuberculosis, oddly, rarely have to wage war with food allergies. Also, she said, some theorize that a more varied diet for young children is to blame. Parents are exposing children to more foods at younger ages.
“We are seeing children as young as 14 months having their first reaction to peanuts,” she said.
Perhaps, the theory goes, their young immune systems are not ready for such a variety of foods.
A third theory is that there are no more food allergies than before, just an increase in parents seeking a diagnosis.
“Parents once said, ‘Oh, he just has a weak stomach.’ ‘She’s always sick,’ ” Munoz-Furlong said. In fact, she said, the reason for the rise in food allergies is probably a combination of all three theories.
Whatever the reason, the affect on children with allergies can’t be turned back. They have to fear a fatal allergic reaction, at worse, and, at best, a life of inconvenient diets. In many homes, the diet for the entire family is geared toward what is safe for the allergic child, said Webb.
“It affects the whole family,” he said. “It’s certainly a big quality of life issue.”