Article 'cherry picks' food allergy research: angry groups
Published Monday, November 16, 2009 7:49PM EST
Sabrina Shannon had such an interest in journalism that by the time she was 10, she produced a radio documentary. She hoped to educate people about kids who suffer from life-threatening allergies. Sabrina herself was allergic to peanuts, milk and soy and had to manage it every day by asking everyone what was in the food she ate.
But Sabrina didn't grow up to be a journalist. She died from an allergic reaction to french fries contaminated with dairy at her school in Pembroke, Ont. six years ago.
As Sabrina was on life support at an Ottawa hospital, her mother, Sara Shannon, promised her that she would become an activist for those suffering from anaphylaxis. Sabrina died a day later at age 13.
That is why Shannon, other parents, doctors and medical groups are livid at a magazine article which suggests parents are overreacting to the condition.
The article, called "It's just nuts," appears in the December issue of Chatelaine. It mainly focuses on peanuts and suggests parents are overreacting to food allergies, anaphylactic reactions aren't as common as people think, and that death rates are low. The headline on the cover refers to a peanut allergy "myth."
The groups who take issue with the article say it mocks parents who have to work hard to protect kids who can die from even invisible amounts of foods to which they are allergic. And they're unhappy with a photo on the article's front page that shows a boy opening his mouth with a piece of peanut butter sandwich on his tongue.
The article closes saying it isn't clear how big a threat peanuts pose, but with more research and debate, the writer's son might one day be able to eat peanuts at his school where they are banned.
In an email to CTV.ca, a spokesperson for the magazine thanked CTV for the opportunity to respond to the accusations but declined an interview.
"If we feel it is appropriate to respond, we will do so in the pages of our magazine," wrote Suneel Khanna.
Chatelaine posted a note Monday on the online version of the article, saying the magazine plans to publish reader reaction in the January issue after receiving an unprecedented number of responses from readers.
The article states that less than two per cent of children suffer from anaphylactic reactions. Anaphylaxis Canada, a group that represents people with life-threatening allergies says two per cent adds up to 90,000 kids across Canada.
Shannon says every child should be protected no matter what the statistics are.
"To me, to save one child's life is not trivial," Shannon said during a phone interview with CTV.ca. "One child's life is most important, every child's life is most important."
Laurie Harada, the Executive Director of Anaphylaxis Canada says the fact that Canadian schools are protecting children is leading to the lower death rate.
"We should be proud of the fact that we don't have a lot of deaths to report," said Harada. "They shouldn't be using lack of death to dismiss the severity and seriousness of food allergy."
The article describes parents' fears as "teeth-clenching neurosis" and panic. Shannon says parents aren't panicking, but have to work with other parents in order to protect children from a potentially life threatening condition that they cannot always control because allergens can be transferred to them by other children's food.
"The vast majority (of parents) deal and deal well," said Dr. Susan Waserman, an allergist who treats children at Hamilton Health Sciences hospital and says that parents are not overreacting.
"It sends the wrong message to everybody and I don't find that it is well researched," she told CTV.ca in a phone interview.
Waserman says babies and young children often do suffer asthma attacks and anaphylaxis due to trace amounts of food, and parents are being reasonable about the risks.
Shannon, Waserman, Anaphylaxis Canada, and other medical groups have written rebuttals or letters to the magazine, accusing it of overlooking research, selectively excluding parts of quotes from studies and presenting them to look like they have other meanings, and taking extreme examples and portraying them as the norm. They also point out that a researcher was referenced with the wrong first name in the article. They say this points to sloppy fact checking.
"An article that cherry picked the research ... is offensive," Waserman said.
The groups are demanding the magazine publish a rebuttal article of equal length that focuses on the risks, and that it be written by a writer who specializes in health journalism.
Reaction on Chatelaine's website is similar, with people leaving comments threatening a boycott or cancelling subscriptions.
The groups who wrote the complaints say they are worried because the article was published in a well-respected magazine like Chatelaine, and can sit in offices for years highlighting information they dispute. They claim it could set back the work they have done to educate the public about how severe some allergies can be.
"When you have adults and children who don't think it's a big deal, you put them at risk," said Harada, explaining that articles that downplay allergy fears can desensitize people to the real dangers.
A study released Monday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found visits to emergency rooms for allergic reactions nearly tripled between 1993-1997 and 2003-2006.
It also said self-reported cases of food allergies increased 18 per cent. The study said it was unclear whether there are more allergies, or just more awareness of allergies.
Shannon said she had to fight for years to get convince skeptics that Sabrina could in fact die.
"People just rolling their eyes, not believing me or not believing Sabrina, being insistent on her having a glass of milk. This could kill her," said Shannon.
Sabrina's death and licking desks
The groups dispute a number of facts, but say they are especially upset about the article's statement that "nuts don't pose much risk to children who are old enough to refrain from licking their desks."
Shannon says her daughter didn't have to lick a surface to be exposed to the milk that killed her.
Sabrina stopped breathing and lost consciousness within minutes of eating plain french fries that were served with tongs that had touched cheese. She had asked the server if there was dairy near the fries and was told they were safe. Shannon says educating people in schools about the severity of allergies could have saved Sabrina's life.
Her death led to Sabrina's Law in Ontario, the first law in the world that requires schools to reduce the risk of exposure to allergens by taking measures like wiping down tables, educating staff, having live-saving Epi-Pens in stock, accommodating food restrictions, and having a plan tailored specifically to each child's allergies.
Shannon says that parents of children with fatal allergies don't make unreasonable requests at school.
"I never expected anyone to have food bans but to be educated. If someone's going to eat a peanut butter sandwich, let them be in a separate room perhaps, wash their hands afterwards carefully," she said.
Since Sabrina's Law was put in place, Shannon has been contacted by people whose children have had allergic reactions at school but were saved by Epi-Pens required to be in stock under the law.
"Kids have the right to feel and be safe at school and that's what we want," Shannon said.