Food Allergies in Michigan Schools: How Research is Dispelling Myths and Lighting the Way Forward

Epinephrine injectors, known by the brand name Epi-pens, are designed to quickly halt an allergic reaction to a bee sting, peanut or egg ingredient, or other allergens.

They can save lives in the time between an accidental bite of a trigger food and medical personnel arriving to provide first aid.

The Michigan Legislature passed Act 4353 in 2014, requiring all publicly-funded schools to have self-injectable epinephrine on hand, as a way to protect students and staff who might not even realize they have an allergy. The legislation also required districts to institute food allergy action plans, provide training to school personnel on the proper use of the medication, as well as record the frequency and use of epinephrine and medical incidents related to food allergens.

Dr. Harvey Leo is a pediatric allergist and research scientist at the University of Michigan (U of M). He’s working to ensure that the data being collected can be put to good use to inform future policy papers and legislative recommendations. With funding from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation, Michigan Department of Education and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, he’s leading a project to create a comprehensive tracking and reporting database.

U of M students are collecting information above and beyond what is required by the legislation. They’re hoping to gain insights into the scope of the problem of food allergic reactions in Michigan schools and to propose training and standards to best address the problem. Allergy “hot spots” can be identified and prioritized to receive additional help in training staff or developing action plans.

Leo said genetics, social and cultural issues and the global environment all factor in to the increasing number of children with documented food allergies. Allergy profiles vary across the state depending on where people live and the types of cuisine they eat, which means allergies might look very different region by region.

Digging into Michigan schools’ data is underway and Leo expects full reports to be ready next summer. He said the state is likely the only one in the country embarking on this type of project and he hopes the results can serve as a model for other areas.

Preliminary research is working to dispel myths, Leo said.

For example, you might think that cafeterias would be the most dangerous place for a student with a food allergy, when in reality, half of reactions happen in the classroom. Parents tend to worry most about their younger children with food allergies, when almost 50 percent of allergic reactions are happening at the high school level, which could be attributed to teenagers’ making poor food choices.

Demographic data suggests that four to six percent of school-age children in Michigan are at risk for food allergy anaphylaxis, which amounts to about 95,000 kids, although fewer than 100 food allergic reactions are documented every year according to the recently collected data. Leo said for those students and parents facing food allergies, the ability to respond quickly and effectively is of the utmost importance.

“Their children all have this problem and they can get pretty sick from this problem if people aren’t paying attention,” he said.

Leo’s own family lives the reality of having a food allergic child. His 13-year-old daughter is allergic to tree nuts, a diagnosis the family learned of when she was six months old. He said the family doesn’t let the allergy drive their decisions, although it does inform his work in researching how best to handle the problem in schools.

“I think it’s what drives us to do this kind of work, because if it’s good for my kid, it will be good for your kid,” he said.

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Photo credit: Andrew Malone

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