Saturday, February 23, 2013

Harmful Things Food Allergy Advocates Say

If you've read my blog for any length of time, you know I have mixed feelings about advocacy and support groups. I do think there's just no other way to really learn the nuances you need to know to keep a food-allergic child safe. However, I also believe they spread fear, misinformation, ultra-conservative thinking...and, even at times, do outright harm. Let me give you some specific examples of where I think advocacy groups have crossed the line.

1. Peanuts are Poison.

This is like telling your child when their pet dies that it has "gone to sleep." It's a dangerous misrepresentation of the situation that is likely to lead to future problems.

In all likelihood, your child will need to undergo a food challenge at some point. It's possible (likely, in the case of milk and egg) that they will outgrow their allergy. (Remember that as many as 20% of children do spontaneously outgrow even a peanut allergy.)

What's going to happen with the child who's been told, over and over, that peanuts are "poison?" My guess is that they're going to have a very hard time adjusting their thinking and going through a challenge. That's how we end up with kids who refuse challenges, even when their doctor thinks the time is right, and who continue to avoid foods even when they've passed a challenge.

Don't do this to your kids. And, when you see advocates promoting this, don't put up with it. It's both technically wrong (an antigen response is nothing like the body's response to a toxin) and psychologically harmful.

2. Vaccines cause food allergies.

I don't know why I was so surprised to see this one come up in my Twitter feed. As I told that Tweeter, we have literally been having this conversation about the link between adjuvants and food allergies for 15 years. (The link above is to my community's old home. The story of why we left there is an instructive one in the abuses of advocacy groups...but probably better left for another day, although I will say that many of us are still disappointed the dedicated ice cream factory never came to fruition...)

This is an excellent poster if you want to be an excellent poster.
Here's the thing: anything that causes mothers not to vaccinate their children needs to have more scientific evidence behind it than "well, it seems like it might be true, so let's post about it." There is real potential for harm here. I have very strong feelings about this because I know a family who lost a baby to pertussis. Their baby was too young to be vaccinated. The neighboring family was anti-vaccine and their children came down with pertussis. They were fine; the baby died.

I'm not going to get into the overall debate about vaccines. However, the idea that peanut oil in vaccines is somehow magically sensitizing children to allergies has no basis in reality. First off, the adjuvant that's most often referenced in all this is a Merck product that was developed in the 1960s, well before the onset of the wave of food allergies. (An adjuvant is an ingredient, most often a metal or  mineral salt, that's added to vaccines as either a preservative or as a "booster" to enhance immune reaction.) Second, any peanut oil used in these situations would be in a highly-purified form that would be extraordinarily unlikely to contain peanut protein residue. Third, a quick perusal of vaccine inserts (I did this years ago, but did it again now just to make sure) does not turn up Merck 65-4 adjuvant or peanut oil in any form that I could find.

There is a philosophical concept called Russell's Teapot: if I want to believe that there is a china teapot orbiting the Earth, the onus is on me to prove my theory. Expressing a theory is not proof. To date, there has been no epidemiological or research link between adjuvants and food allergies. Remember, folks: many of these doctors and researchers are interested in food allergies in the first place because they have a child with food allergies. There is no reason to believe in a grand conspiracy here.

Advocates: before you start spreading this next round of hysteria on your sites, remember that there's a potential negative outcome here. There are babies that will die as a result of people's choices about whether to vaccinate. If you spread it, you own it.

3. Zero tolerance. Strict Avoidance

I am really sick of the conversation about food thresholds. But, I saw this one on an advocate board the other day and it ticked me off all over again.

I worked in the world of medical device during the time latex allergies became prevalent. The FDA at that time attempted a "zero tolerance" initiative for latex. Basically, every component of every machine — even if the components never had potential to come in contact with patients or medical staff — had to be declared. If even one O-ring contained latex, the entire machine was marked "contains latex."

Is this what we want? Do we want products marked for peanut, even if there's no detectable peanut protein? From a practical perspective, that would mean that any food that is ever done in a factory shared at any time with any other peanut products would be suspect. Since the vast majority of lines are shared, that would essentially mean just about everything would be labeled, other than the largest dedicated factories or those who are already catering to us.

We need to live in the real world. We need to understand the nuances of food manufacturing and the limits of testing. Most important, we need to project a willingness to discuss the issues, not just make a declaration, stomp our feet and leave. Why should food manufacturers work with us if we won't work with them, especially when we punish the manufacturers who are honest (and use "may contain" labels) and purchase foods from the manufacturers who don't?

Are there others that bug you? Add them to the comments! 


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