In kindergarten, like most of my classmates, I had an obsession with superheroes. Unlike my peers, however, what fascinated me about these caped and costumed crusaders were their weaknesses, not their strengths. This was because I had a Kryptonite of my own.
Exposure to eggs, milk or peanuts would cause my throat to close off, in a condition known as anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can result in death.
As an adolescent, I realize that food allergies and their effects did not just touch my life but millions of others, and they have the potential to be one of the most important issues of my generation.
In my search for avenues to advocate for people like myself, I joined the nonprofit Food Allergy Research & Education teen advisory group two years ago. Last year, I was a speaker at the FARE national conference and also delivered a speech on the steps of the California Capitol about not letting my allergies limit my life. On Monday, I will be part of a small group of advocates meeting with legislators to talk about food allergy awareness and other issues.
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There are an estimated 15 million Americans with food allergies. One in 13 children, or roughly two children per school classroom, has food allergies. Every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone in the U.S. to the emergency room. Deaths occur in spite of extreme and obsessive care by individuals and their families.
Food Allergy Research & Education estimates that the economic cost of children’s food allergies is nearly $25 billion each year. Developed nations have the highest rates of food allergies, and the incidence of food allergy has been growing every year. With the increase in food allergies, costs and fatalities are likely to rise as well.
Despite the heavy burden to society illustrated by these facts, there is a common misconception that food allergies are nothing more than a lifestyle choice. They may be seen as an excuse for picky eating or cause for mild discomfort. This results in more than a societal apathy for those affected by food allergies. It can lead to mistakes that endanger life.
My first episode of anaphylaxis resulted when a waiter washed cheese off broccoli before bringing it to the table and assured my parents that it was dairy-free.
Food allergy awareness is crucial. Families receiving the diagnosis that their son or daughter has severe food allergies begin an uphill battle that can last years. The need to be constantly vigilant is a daily experience. Often I feel like a lone crusader against a world that is opposed to change. But this is a dynamic that can be altered.
When we work together, great changes can be made. For example, strides in labeling, advocacy for education, epinephrine availability in schools and scientific breakthroughs championed by organizations like the Food Allergy Research & Education have improved the lives of many people across the country.
But there is much to be done.
Access to safe food is still tricky, especially while traveling. Restaurant kitchens and wait staff may not be educated about ingredients that can trigger a reaction, cross-contact with other foods or the importance of both. There are some emerging therapies for food allergies, but there is no panacea.
At this time, the best that we can hope for is communitywide awareness. Deaths from food allergies are preventable. I hope everyone will join me in helping to educate others about anaphylaxis and to create a safer place for those of us who have food allergies.
Nikhilesh Kumar is a sophomore at Mira Loma High School. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.