Tuesday, June 13, 2000

Food peril not nutty politics

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Elissa Sonnenberg, a freelance writer and therefore a mostly stay-at-home Northside mom, sneaks out with me for a couple of scrambled eggs. She can't have them at home. At least not with Nicholas.

        He's allergic.

        Nicholas, 4, also cannot eat peanuts. If he does, he will die. Not throw up. Not break out in a rash. Stop breathing.

        Just one peanut.

        “A half peanut,” Elissa corrects me gently. He doesn't even have to eat it to get sick. The allergen can be airborne. Once another child's peanut butter took Nicholas' breath away. Literally. He was just in the same room.

        His teacher and the principal of his North Avondale Montessori School both have Epi-Pens, an injector with epinephrine.

        One of them would ride with Nicholas in the ambulance in case he needed another dose on the way to the hospital. Not all EMTs in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana are allowed to carry or administer epinephrine. You never know whom you'll get.

        Nicholas has been practicing and soon will carry an Epi-Pen. He's also learning to read. “Thank God,” Elissa says, “he'll be able to read his own labels.” The only way to stay healthy is to avoid the food that will poison him.

        Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery and the attorneys general of eight other states have petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to require better labeling, spurred by the death of a 17-year-old girl from trace amounts of peanut oil in a party snack mix.

Mysterious increase
        Announcing a discovery that might improve treatment for people suffering intestinal problems caused by food allergies, Children's Hospital Medical Center researcher Marc Rothenberg said last week, “We've seen a doubling of cases (during the past two decades), and we don't understand why.”

        The Food Allergy Network estimates that as many as 7 million Americans suffer from food allergies, accounting for 30,000 emergency room visits a year and between 100 and 200 deaths. About 3 million have peanut or tree nut allergy.

        Not a big number, really.

        And Elissa Sonnenberg isn't asking that the world be turned upside down. “I don't think peanuts should be wiped off the face of the earth. I don't even believe in peanut-free tables at schools. I think it gives kids a false sense of security.”

        But she wishes people wouldn't have a knee-jerk reaction to regulation and thinks all emergency personnel should be equipped to deal with food emergencies, maybe even restaurant personnel. She worries about Nicholas all the time. She doesn't expect us to do the same. It would be enough if we just understand how lethal this condition can be.

        Nicholas will not be living his life in the rarified atmosphere of a small, enlightened school. He will be at camp and in play groups and at friends' houses after school. Maybe yours.

        We're always trying to “put a face” on a problem, on an issue, on a disease. Well, look at the face of Nicholas Sonnenberg, Pokemon fan and proud owner of a Batman nightshirt. Brave, funny. Very cute.

        More than an illustration in a political debate about labeling or the peanut franchise on airlines, he's a little boy trying to grow up. Especially now. He's planning to look out for his brother, Owen. Age 2. Just diagnosed.

        A peanut can kill him.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393.