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School Peanut Allergy Safety

The Peanut Allergy Answer Book

Q. How can my peanut-allergic child be kept safe at school?

A. Consider the following facts: Food allergies affect 8 percent of children under 3, and 6 to 8 percent of school-age children. Eighty-five percent of children outgrow milk and egg allergies by age 5, but only 20 percent outgrow peanut allergy by age 6. The prevalence of peanut and tree nut allergies in children has doubled in the past five years. Peanut-allergic patients have accidental exposures and reactions every three years. Seventy-five percent of peanut-allergic reactions occur on the first known exposure. Twenty-five percent of epinephrine administrations in schools are for people who have never had food allergy or anaphylaxis. In the U.S., fatal food anaphylaxis occurs in 150 people each year, 90 percent from peanut and nut allergies. Fatal anaphylaxis occurs most often outside the home, in schools and restaurants. Given these statistics, every school needs to be prepared to deal with the problem of food anaphylaxis, especially from peanut allergy.

In 2001, following the death of a peanut-allergic student in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Department of Education convened a Food Anaphylaxis Task Force, of which I was privileged to be a part. We discussed the growing problem of life-threatening food allergies in schools, the importance of making all schools aware of this problem, and the importance of having ways to prevent and manage anaphylaxis in schools. After meeting over the course of a year, in 2002 the task force published "Managing Life Threatening Food Allergies in Schools," a 76-page set of guidelines for all schools in Massachusetts. This detailed document addresses all aspects of managing food allergies in schools, including the action plan and recommendations for the classroom, cafeteria, school sports, playgrounds, extracurricular activities, school trips, and school buses. You can adapt sections from these guidelines for your child's action plan for school. You can view or download this document from the Web site of the Massachusetts Department of Education at www.doe.mass.edu/cnp. Many states and even schools from other countries have used these guidelines as a template for their own school policies.

Setting School Peanut Safety Guidelines

The key points of the guidelines are to:

  1. Identify the student with the food allergy to the school;
  2. Have a written emergency action plan in place for managing an anaphylactic reaction;
  3. Have a written individual healthcare plan in place for the prevention and proactive management for the student in all the different school environments he or she may be in, from the classroom to the cafeteria to the bus to field trips.

The emergency action plan is formulated by your physician with your input, based on your child's history, and specifies what symptoms to look for and what treatments are to be given, as well as contact information and directions for disposition following the reaction. The school nurse usually is responsible for implementing this plan in the event of an actual emergency. This is discussed in greater detail in the section on the school's responsibility to you.

The general principles of the preventive plan usually include the following:

  1. The general principles of avoidance followed at home should be applied to the classroom, cafeteria, and all areas where the student may be. Nineteen percent of anaphylactic reactions in Massachusetts schoolchildren occurred outside the school building, on the playground, on the school bus to and from school, and on field trips.
  2. For areas where food is consumed, hand washing, no food sharing, and the routine cleaning of surfaces where food is prepared and consumed to avoid cross contamination are practices that students and school staff need to learn and use.
  3. For the classroom, students and staff need to become familiar with the concept of "hidden" peanut ingredients, not only in foods and but also in nonfood items that may be used in classroom projects in arts and crafts, math, and science. Reading the ingredient labels of foods, as well as other items such as bird feeders and pet feed, becomes an additional responsibility of the school teacher and staff.
  4. There should ideally be a full-time nurse in any school where there are students with life-threatening allergies. If the school nurse is unable to be on site, she should be able to train a designated staff member in the management of anaphylaxis and the use of epinephrine.
  5. Every student with life-threatening allergies needs to have an epinephrine autoinjector in the school. The epinephrine autoinjector needs to be accessible for quick access within several minutes of a reaction and kept in a secure but unlocked location.
  6. Emergency communications between all the student's locations (classroom, cafeteria, gym, playground, etc.) and the school nurse and/or principal's office should be available. Students, families, teachers, and school staff should all be educated on food allergies, anaphylaxis, and general avoidance principles. The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network is an excellent resource for educational programs for schools and provides many age-specific materials, including videos for children and a very useful kit for school staff and personnel.

Q. Should peanuts be banned from schools?

A. Consider this real-life scenario:

Mark, age 5, is severely allergic to peanuts and has already had three episodes of anaphylaxis, one requiring hospitalization. He has been kept out of preschool because the family could not find a school that satisfied their stringent requirements. They are now about to enroll Mark in kindergarten and are requesting a letter of medical necessity from me and the pediatrician to order that his school prohibit peanuts and peanut products from Mark's classroom, as well as from the school cafeteria.

The social and legal aspects of this question are very similar to those of airline peanut exposure. Many preschools and some schools have in fact banned peanuts from the classrooms and cafeterias. Whether they do so largely depends on the number of students affected in the school and community, parents' efforts, and the willingness of the school system and community to make accommodations.

There are good arguments for both sides. Peanut allergy is a potentially life-threatening condition; it would make sense to eliminate any possibility of exposure in a setting with young children who cannot be expected to understand all the problems of management, let alone the implications of having a life-threatening reaction. On the other hand, without foolproof methods of guaranteeing peanut detection 100 percent of the time, there is no way to enforce a true "peanut-free" school. It would be difficult to do detailed inspections of all food brought into school by other students, assuming that everything had an ingredient label, and most families would not be expected to have adequate knowledge of peanut allergy to be able to make school lunches peanut-free -- nor could they be expected to have that motivation. As with peanut-free flights, some also argue that a "false sense of security" results from a school that claims to be peanut-free, resulting in decreased vigilance and monitoring over time.

Another problem is that older children who never have to face dealing with "real-life" situations of hidden exposures, such as cross contamination, because they have been in peanut-free environments at home and at school, may be at a disadvantage when they go to college and eventually are on their own. In addition, there is the consideration of the children with other life-threatening food allergies. Do we also ban milk, eggs, wheat, soy, tree nuts, seafood, etc., from schools to accommodate these other students? These are by no means easy questions to answer and are the subject of many debates in local communities. Fortunately, most schools and families usually are able to agree on very practical school plans.

Preventative Measures

In most cases, compromise solutions are reached, such as having a peanut-free table in the cafeteria or a peanut-free room. Some schools have a designated peanut table or area where all the peanut products are eaten, leaving the rest of the cafeteria peanut free. These zone approaches are generally quite satisfactory because the actual risk in a dining hall with good ventilation and no exposure to the actual cooking fumes is very low, particularly for anaphylaxis. Of course, every effort needs to be made to minimize your child's sense of isolation; he or she should be able to pick several friends to sit at the peanut-free table.

In addition to cafeteria precautions, students are given age-appropriate education in allergy and what the consequences of anaphylaxis are. The dangers of sharing foods and snacks must be discussed. This education often must begin with the school nurse explaining these issues to administrative staff. For preschools and lower grade classes with very young, difficult-to-monitor children and classes with multiple peanut-allergic students, a peanut-free classroom might end up being an easier approach for teachers and staff.

The key to the success of any preventive plan is access to and availability of epinephrine. This can not be overstated. Without easy access to epinephrine in areas where food and eating occur, potential disaster awaits. This can be a problem, particularly for children who, because of their age, do not have permission to carry their epinephrine with them and are therefore dependent on the school nurse for their epinephrine.

Many schools have to share one nurse, so an individual school may only have the nurse there a few days each week. In this common situation, the nurse has the ability and legal authority in many states to train a designee in the use and administration of epinephrine. This designee can be a teacher, principal, secretary, or any individual in the school able and available to perform this crucial function in the absence of the school nurse. You need to know exactly what the school nurse's weekly schedule is and to whom she has designated the responsibility for administering epinephrine on the days she is not present in the school. You should have this plan in writing from the school nurse and principal.

 

Originally published on AmericanBaby.com, September 2006.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.