The fear surrounding nut allergies among children has gotten so out of control, one doctor says, that it could be considered an outbreak of mass psychogenic illness (MPI), more informally known as mass hysteria. Writing in the British Medical Journal, medical sociologist Nicholas Christakis argues that a tiny fraction of hospital admissions and deaths are due to allergic reactions to nuts yet ever more draconian measures are being brought in to prevent any child coming into contact with nuts [Telegraph]. Those draconian measures fuel parents’ anxieties, Christakis says, in what he calls a “cycle of over-reaction.”
Christakis cites the extreme example of when a potentially fatal peanut was “spotted on the floor of a school bus, whereupon the bus was evacuated and cleaned (I am tempted to say decontaminated), even though it was full of 10-year-olds who, unlike two-year-olds, could actually be told not to eat food off the floor” [The Register]. He also mentions some school policies of banning all nuts, peanut butter, and even baked goods that may have come into contact with nuts. While he acknowledges that nut allergies can be serious and even deadly, Christakis says that reasonable preventative measures could protect vulnerable children without scaring the bejesus out of everyone else.
In his article, Christakis argues that the response to nut allergies is drastically out of proportion to the true threat they pose. He notes that many more children are allergic to other foods like shellfish, wheat, or milk, and that the combined toll of all food allergies is not extraordinarily high. In the US, serious allergic reactions to foods cause just 2,000 of more than 30 million hospitalisations a year and comparatively few deaths – 150 a year from all food allergies combined [BBC News]. He compares this to the 45,000 people killed every year in car crashes, and the roughly 1,300 children who die from gun accidents.
Allergies are an increasingly hot topic because the number of people affected is skyrocketing; the Centers for Disease Control recently announced that the number of children and teenagers with food allergies increased 18 percent between 1997 and 2007. Nobody knows why the number is growing, but some researchers speculate that as other threats to the human immune system are removed from the playing field by antibacterial soap and other modern techniques, the immune system needs something to do, so it attacks the offbeat proteins in peanuts and other foods that many people are known to be sensitive to [LiveScience]. If this “hygiene hypothesis” is correct, it’s possible that sheltered children who avoid nuts will be even more sensitized to the nut allergens when they eventually encounter them.
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