Deadly threat mounts - Allergies rising at epidemic pace
Theories abound on why numbers are increasing
Taped to the wall in the principal's office at Roselands Junior Public School are photographs of 12 students. Of the 330 children who attend this west-end school, these dozen faces are ones that school board administrators want teachers and other staff to commit to memory.
That's because these youngsters have severe and even life-threatening allergies. Having their pictures posted in the principal's office — as well as in the lunchroom and in every teacher's daybook — will help staff quickly recognize them and jump to action should they ever run into trouble.
Without immediate attention, these children could die within minutes.
"It's important that all the staff know who those 12 students are and who have the highest degree of concern," explains principal Gary Kamino, adding that most have severe allergies to peanuts or bee stings.
Such precautions have become de rigueur in schools, as the number of students suffering from allergies rises.
In fact, the province is debating a law that would set food safety standards for all schools and make it mandatory to have an allergy management plan in place. (For more on Bill 3, see page J4.)
"What we do in schools now is standard procedure," says Kamino, who has seen an increase in allergic students during his 20 years in the system. "For sure, there's more children coming forward with allergies. That's definitely gone up."
A new study in the British Medical Journal bears that out. Published earlier this year, the study found that the number of men susceptible to allergies has grown by at least 10 per cent in the past 30 years.
Blood samples of more than 500 men, taken between 1975 and 1998, were tested for sensitivities to 11 allergens, including grass pollen, pet skin flakes and house mite dust. The study showed "highly significant increases" in the numbers who tested positive, equivalent to a rise of 4.5 per cent each decade.
Allergies are increasing at epidemic proportions and have reached chronic levels, according to Dr. Judah Denburg, a McMaster University professor who specializes in immunology and allergies.
"Every survey everywhere in the Western world has shown that they're increasing exponentially. This is not an imagined thing. It's a real thing," he says.
One in three Canadians has some form of an allergy and that number is on the rise, Denburg warns.
Allergic reactions occur when the body's defence mechanism overreacts to something that is usually harmless, such as peanuts, pollen or cat dander.
In order to protect itself, the body creates antibodies targeted to the allergen. However, the next time the body senses that same allergen, the immune systems release massive amounts of chemicals and histamines — triggering symptoms that can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin or cardiovascular system.
Allergies can manifest themselves in many ways, including tingling of the lips, rash, wheezing and stomach cramps.
At the extreme end is anaphylactic shock. This explosive overreaction of the immune system can be fatal, and is characterized by swelling, difficulty breathing, abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, circulatory collapse, coma and death.
According to Anaphylaxis Canada, up to 2 per cent of Canadians live with the risk of an anaphylactic reaction. More than 50 per cent of Canadians know someone with a life-threatening allergy.
Toronto allergist Mark Greenwald says allergies are part of the evolution of the immunoresponse system.
"It's probably a genetic leftover of a defence system from a long time ago," he says. "They probably evolved to get rid of a foreign invader. Foreign invaders back then were parasites and worms. If someone has a worm infection, a lot of the things that happen in your body are very similar to an allergic reaction."
Theories to explain the increasing occurrence of allergies abound.
Joseph Butchey, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Western Ontario and an expert on allergies, says it's easier to diagnose allergies today. "We're better able to detect it," he says.
Butchey also points to the "hygiene hypothesis," which finds that households in developed countries are so clean that our bodies aren't getting the early training they need to ward off allergens later in life. (See story at left.)
Denburg is studying another theory that suggests a correlation between the growing obesity rate and increasing incidents of allergies and asthma.
"There appears to be lots of reasons to believe they might be connected, in terms of the immune system, in terms of metabolism, in terms of a tendency to develop both these chronic conditions in parallel," he says. "It looks like there's more to it than just a chance occurrence."
Although there can be a genetic link to allergies, your risk may be higher depending on where you live. Southern Ontario is known as a hot spot because of its high pollen count and smog.
"There are lots of environmental issues in terms of air pollution and its mixing with the pollens in the air and other factors to make allergies worse," Denburg says.
As the allergy rate rises, so does its cost to our economy.
"The amount of lost work, time and productivity is in the tens of billions (of dollars) across North America," Denburg says.
At Roselands Junior Public School, the cost of allergies is measured in days absent. But principal Kamino tries to keep that to a minimum, using measures to help students who suffer from allergies. For example, peanut butter is forbidden.
And in Kamino's desk drawer is a collection of EpiPen syringes filled with epinephrine, which can counteract anaphylactic shock. Staff have been given a workshop on how to administer the syringes.
"They're there in case of an emergency. I've never had to use one yet, and I hope I never have to," he says.
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