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Allergy protection a life or death situation

November 27, 2013

Staff photo/Karen Kantner Students in Beth Kantner’s first-grade class at Wapakoneta Elementary School strive to be a peanut-free classroom and help to protect their classmates, many of whom have allergies to peanuts. Helping to educate them is Diane Harrod, whose daughter suffers from peanut allergies so severe they could kill her.

A mother who fears what could happen to her daughter when she is not around has made it her mission to talk to as many students she can about peanut allergies.

Diane Harrod’s daughter, Emily, a first-grader at Wapakoneta Elementary School, had been very sick. At 18 months old she underwent testing and it was discovered she was allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, and eggs, and had asthma. 

As a baby, Emily also suffered from bad eczema — a sign of peanut allergies that was not known at the time.

Harrod said of the four known proteins in peanuts to which people may be allergic, Emily tested severely to three of them.

“It is life threatening,” Harrod said. “The chance of survival for her is slim.

“At home I can protect her but in a school setting I can’t,” she said about why she wanted to talk to students in the school about what they can do to help.

Harrod said thankfully technology has come a long way, which helps in protecting her daughter, but because she can’t always be with her, she wanted to reach out to her classmates and explain just how severe the situation is.

In presenting a program on peanut allergies to all first-graders at Emily’s school, Harrod said she wanted to help them understand how they can help. Three children in Emily’s class have severe peanut allergies.

“You can find out all different times in life about having peanut allergies,” Harrod told the students, telling them afterward that even adults who never had allergies before are developing them.

“We found out about our daughter when she was first starting to walk,” she said.

She asked the students to not eat food with peanuts in them, not to share food, to wash their hands after they eat, to recognize the seriousness of the situation and not to play tricks, and if they see someone having an allergic reaction to tell a grownup right away.

At home, the Harrods keep nothing which 7-year-old Emily may have a reaction. In addition to the obvious, that also means not having many brands of lemonade, only using items made by certain manufacturers and constantly reading labels.

She said Emily doesn’t eat anything when she is with someone else, always packs her lunch, is responsible for carrying her own EpiPen, and is learning how to give it to herself if need be. Emily also needs to know her body and if something is wrong.

“There are a lot of things people don’t think about,” Harrod said. “The more people who are aware and understand, the more students know about it, the more everyone can look out for it.

“That’s the best thing I can do for my child,” she said. “I want her to lead the most normal life she can. If that means talking about it and educating people, then that is what I need to do.”

One in 13 children have a food allergy and that number is on the rise with the Discovery Channel recently describing it as an epidemic. Since 2007, food allergies in the United States have tripled and to date there is no known reason why or cure. Most children have a 20-percent chance of outgrowing the allergies.

Harrod said because of one of the proteins Emily has tested allergic to she will not be one of the children who outgrow the allergies.

The best she and her family can do is look for a cure and keep Emily’s immune system strong, in part with the use of herbs. 

As she has gotten older she no longer has asthma and her allergy to eggs has lessened, but her peanut allergies remain strong enough that she can’t even inhale the smell of peanuts in a bowl or sit somewhere if peanut shells are on the ground.

“It’s the scariest thing in the world and people take it for granted,” Harrod said. “It’s a common food that everyone eats, but it can kill my daughter in minutes.”

To continue to educate herself, Harrod frequently goes to conferences around the country and belongs to a variety of support groups in different places as well. It helps when she gets backlash from parents who think nuts should still be allowed in classrooms and the school.

She said the school’s reaction has been amazing, with students with allergies all sitting at a specific table together and having one lunch monitor assigned to them. School personnel meet with the parents of students with such special needs before school starts to determine how to address concerns.

“They are very open to our suggestions and what is best for all kids,” Harrod said. “They don’t exclude our children and allow them to carry their meds.”

A parent support group was formed at the school last year and they have continued to get together periodically and discuss how they handle certain situations. None of the parents knew each other until they formed the group.

Wapakoneta Elementary School Assistant Principal Carrie Knoch said they sent a letter home with parents at the beginning of the year to notify them that they were putting certain safety guidelines into effect to protect students with serious allergies, who can suffer reactions merely by touching a peanut-containing food.

The school asks parents not to send peanuts, tree nuts, peanut butter or foods containing those items in to be eaten as snacks in the classroom or for birthday and party treats and to prevent cross contamination when preparing items. 

Parents also were asked to not pack the items in their children’s lunches. Realizing that it may be unavoidable the school advised parents that their children may need to sit at a different table than those with an allergy and be asked to wash their hands after eating.

No classroom projects are to involve peanut butter or tree nuts.

“We recognize that it is an inconvenience for parents to monitor snacks and lunches,” Knoch said, adding, “I think that most parents understand that if their child had a life threatening allergy, they would want the same thing. We appreciate their patience and understanding.”

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