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Peanut allergy isn't kid stuff.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

Of the countless frightening scenarios that have swirled through Greta and Randy Sangder's minds since they learned their daughter had a life-threatening allergy to peanuts, a deadly kiss wasn't among them.

They knew a kiss could cause harm: Once, after eating peanuts on an airline flight home to Eugene, Randy greeted Emily with a kiss, and a rash erupted around her mouth.

Even so, recent news that a 15-year-old Quebec girl died after kissing her boyfriend "blew us away," Greta said. The boyfriend had eaten toast with peanut butter nine hours earlier.

"I was completely shocked that a person could die from that," said Greta, 45, a service manager for RBC Dain Rauscher. "It just really got our attention. I mean, anytime someone dies it really gets our attention. But something like this, it makes you think that even though you're doing everything you can, maybe that's not even going to be enough."

The story, widely reported in the media in late November, doubtlessly sent chills up the spines of millions of parents like the Sangders, whose primary mission in life is to keep their child alive.

The case was a terrifying reminder that doing so may take more than simply avoiding peanuts. For Emily and other people with extreme peanut allergy, even the aroma can trigger a reaction, and just a trace of residue might prove deadly.

The Sangders want to spread the word in every corner of Emily's world - in her school, on her sports teams, throughout the community.

"Neither of us ever pass up the opportunity to sort of enlighten people," Randy Sangder said. "I grew up with allergies to various things, like a lot of people do - cats, dust. You get a runny nose and maybe your throat gets a little tight. People think this is like that. They really don't understand just how serious this is."

Food allergies kill between 150 and 200 Americans each year, according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, a national advocacy group. They die from anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction that can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin and cardiovascular system. The body's immune system overreacts to what it perceives to be a threat, and a torrent of chemicals and histamines is released throughout the body.

When Emily Sangder, who is now 7, had her first reaction at 2 1/2 after a taste of peanut butter from a child-care provider, her symptoms included vomiting, hives and wheezing. In more severe cases, blood pressure drops and the airway shuts off.

Food allergies afflict an estimated 11 million people, and - for reasons that aren't well understood - the numbers are escalating, especially among young children and especially with peanut allergy. A 2003 study found a doubling in the rate of peanut allergy among children between 1997 and 2002.

"Numerically, (peanut allergy) is the big one," said Dr. Kraig Jacobson, a Eugene allergy specialist.

There's been a similar surge in other allergies, too, he said, as well as asthma, which often accompanies food allergies.

Better diagnosis only partly explains the increase. One hypothesis Jacobson and many scientists favor is that, due to the growing prevalence of antibiotics and antibacterial products, children's immune systems are being thrown out of whack because they're insufficiently stimulated.

Many experts also believe that too many parents are giving their children peanut products and other allergens at too young an age.

"The earlier people are exposed to certain allergens, the more likely they are going to have an allergy to it, because when they're very young the immune system is not completely developed and it allows those things to cross through," Jacobson said.

Jacobson disagrees with some experts who say the reverse may be true - that children exposed to an allergen such as peanuts earlier are less likely to develop an allergy.

Nor does he believe that mothers are indirectly to blame for eating too much peanut butter while pregnant or breast-feeding - a theory that some experts support.

Whatever the case, he's seen explosive growth in food allergies at his own practice.

"I see the more severe cases," he said, "and I see a much higher number than what I saw before."

Responding to the influx

When the Sangders enrolled Emily as a preschooler at the Eugene Water & Electric Board Child Development Center, she was the first child the staff had ever encountered with a peanut allergy. The center immediately stopped serving peanut butter and asked that families not bring peanut products on the premises.

The rule stuck after Emily left. In the four years since then, the center has had several other children with peanut allergies, and currently has two.

Responding to the influx of children with peanut allergies, schools and child-care centers have taken similar steps - often unpopular with other parents, who rely on peanut butter as an inexpensive, nutritious lunch option for finicky kids.

The Eugene School District yanked peanut butter sandwiches off the menu in fall 2003, and tries to avoid all other peanut products by checking labels, food services director Chad Williams said. Schools that have students with peanut allergies employ various strategies, including peanut-free tables.

At Emily's school, Buena Vista, Principal B.J. Blake and nurse Robin Wellwood this year established a "peanut-only" table for children who bring peanut butter for lunch. The rest of the lunchroom is nut-free.

"This way we don't isolate (the allergic children) or identify them in any way, shape or form," Blake said.

While a few parents initially bristled at the rule, nearly all have come around, she said. "The more information we gave to people, the more that they learned, the more they were totally on board with supporting this," she said.

According to the Eugene School District's computerized student information system, 234 students have severe food allergies.

At Buena Vista, an alternative Spanish immersion elementary, peanuts are listed for seven of the 11 students with serious food allergies.

The Springfield and Bethel school districts still serve peanut butter, although Bethel officials will meet next month to hash out a new policy, spokesman Pat McGillivray said. It may well mean peanuts and tree nuts no longer will be served in the school lunch program, he said.

"Each school that has a student with a peanut allergy has a nut-free table in the lunchroom," he said. "But that's not enough."

Bethel family copes

Eagerly awaiting that policy change are Hal and Alberta Wooten, who have discussed their 7-year-old daughter's severe peanut allergy with Bethel officials repeatedly.

As a toddler, Asia Wooten attended the YMCA preschool program at Adams Elementary in the Eugene district, and her parents were so pleased with the precautions that the entire building took that they requested - and received - a transfer from Bethel.

Adams, which shares a building with Hillside Alternative Elementary, strives to keep its campus nut-free. Each month, Alberta Wooten and the parents of a second student with a peanut allergy meet with the school nurse and principal to talk about any concerns.

"She's been very safe at Adams," said Wooten, who drives Asia across town twice daily. "I will say that everybody has accommodated us. Yes, people still show up with nuts and peanut butter sandwiches occasionally, but we have folks there watching and taking care of Asia."

Next year, though, the Wootens plan to send Asia to the third grade at her neighborhood school in Bethel - assuming they're satisfied with the district's proposal.

But the Wootens have learned that danger lurks in unlikely places. Two weeks ago, Asia suffered a serious allergic reaction - the third of her life - during a Kidsports basketball practice. Asia's coach and teammates know about her allergy, and her mother always brings baby wipes for all the players, including those on the opposing team, so they can wipe their hands and faces. But somehow Asia was exposed nonetheless and near the end of practice she broke out in hives and began to wheeze.

Wooten immediately administered Asia's EpiPen, a device that delivers a quick shot of epinephrine to control an allergic reaction. (All schools have these on hand, and staff are trained to use them; Wooten keeps one in her purse, and Adams Elementary has one nearby wherever Asia happens to be.) She then gave Asia a double dose of Benadryl and rushed her to the hospital, where she was given steroids and monitored for several hours.

"I finally got a good night's sleep last Friday," four days after it happened, Wooten said last week.

The daily peril of having a peanut allergy hasn't kept Asia down, Wooten said.

"Asia lives a normal life," she said. "She doesn't live in a bubble. She plays piano, she's on the YMCA swim team, she takes pottery class, she sings in nursing homes. But I'm with her everywhere she goes, with my EpiPen and my Benadryl in my purse."

Kids learn to take precautions

The Wootens and the Sangders know that, sooner than they'd like, they'll need to step back, give their children room to grow up and look out for themselves. That's one of the reasons the death of the Canadian girl, Christina Desforges, was so chilling - a teenager caught up in the moment, thinking of anything but a peanut allergy that hadn't been triggered in many years.

Kathy Stringfield of Eugene shuddered when she heard about it. Both of her boys, 16-year-old Drew and 14-year-old Nick, are allergic to peanuts, Drew severely. He has to take Claritin before going to Ducks games because the dust from the peanut shells makes him sneeze and wheeze.

"We're at the stage now of girlfriends," his mother said. "We talked about (Desforges' death) up and down, left and right."

A Sheldon High sophomore, Drew plays football and runs track. He said he's comfortable talking about his allergy and acting as his own advocate.

Traesha Cooks, a Willamette High freshman, described her peanut allergy as "kind of annoying," and said she constantly has to watch out for herself.

"I explain my reaction to my friends, and some of them get it and the others are like, `I don't think that will happen,' and they wave peanut butter in my face," she said.

Her mother, Kathy Cooks, worries whenever Traesha is out of her sight.

"But I give her credit, she's really aware - she's got this radar," Cooks said. "Still, she can still come in behind somebody and touch a desk or a door or whatever and have a reaction."

Emily Sangder already is showing the same presence of mind as her teen counterparts.

"Even when people offer her things - things that kids don't want to turn away, like cookies and sweets - if she can't be assured, she won't eat it," said Randy, 49, a code enforcement inspector for the city of Eugene. "She makes no bones about asking, if we're not around, are there peanuts in there? Unless she's convinced in her little mind, she won't eat it."

On a recent day, Emily giggled with three of her first-grade classmates at a table in the Buena Vista lunchroom, sipping milk and munching on chicken nuggets shaped like stars for the holidays.

Her friends said they would never think of bringing peanut butter to school.

Greta said she doesn't expect other children to stop eating peanut butter for Emily's sake, and doesn't advocate schoolwide bans. But she wants everyone to understand the lethal possibilities and take precautions, such as washing hands and faces with soap after eating peanut butter.

"We know Emily's not going to live in a peanut-free world," said Sangder, who hopes to start a local advocacy and support group for parents of children with food allergies. "I feel like if we go about it in an educational way, things may actually end up safer."


Beginning Jan. 1, manufacturers will be required to declare the presence of any one of eight major allergens in ingredient lists. The allergens are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans.


For further information about food allergies, visit or call (800) 929-4040.
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Title Annotation:Health; A surge in the deadly condition prompts parents and schools to boost awareness and precautions
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 28, 2005
Previous Article:Clemens gets to lose crutches next week.
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