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Child allergies rise, and local states lead the nation in life-saving prevention

Monday - 12/16/2013, 5:11am  ET

peanut butter sandwich (Thinkstock)
Allergies can develop over time and some children and parents might not be aware of an allergic reaction until it's serious. (WTOP File)

WASHINGTON - The Washington, D.C., region leads the nation when it comes to saving kids from severe allergy attacks.

President Barack Obama recently signed legislation encouraging states to keep emergency medicine in schools to give any student who gets a life-threatening allergic reaction, even if that child has no prescription for the drug.

But Virginia and Maryland are already there. They are among only four states in the entire nation -- the other two are Nebraska and Nevada -- that require all schools to stock epinephrine auto-injectors. There are several types. The most common is called the EpiPen.

"This is absolutely a great idea for children with life-threatening allergies," says Dr. Hemant Sharma, director of the Food Allergy Program at Children's National Medical Center.

Epinephrine, a type of adrenaline, has the ability to reverse all the signs and symptoms of these dangerous allergic reactions and can stabilize a child before EMTs arrive, he says.

Twenty to 30 percent of the allergic reactions that occur in schools happen in children who have not even been diagnosed with an allergy and have no prescription for epinephrine, Sharma says.

Some of these allergies develop over time and a life-threatening episode can seem to come out of nowhere. That was the case with 7-year-old Amarria Johnson, a Richmond-area child who inspired the Virginia law.

Johnson died in January 2012 after suffering a severe allergic reaction to peanuts at her school, which did not have epinephrine available. John Lehr, executive director of the advocacy group FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education), says her death could have been prevented had she received an emergency injection at the school clinic.

Within months, Virginia passed "Amarria's Law," requiring schools to keep an undesignated epinephrine auto-injector on hand for any child who might need it.

Maryland followed suit a short time later. A similar measure is under consideration by the D.C. City Council.

Getting undesignated EpiPens into schools is critically important, Lehr says, and there is a national campaign underway to get more states to adopt requirements similar to those in Maryland and Virginia. He says time is of the essence because the number of kids with food allergies is on the rise.

Sharma says his food allergy program has seen a sevenfold increase in patient volume over the last five years. Emergency room admissions for allergic reactions are also up.

He cites a recent study that estimates one in 13 children in the United States has a food allergy. That roughly translates to two in every classroom. And while food is the most common cause of life-threatening allergic reactions, it is not the only one. There are many other triggers, including bee stings and latex, Sharma says.

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