11 people die a year from food allergies.
Big difference. So which is it?
Meredith Broussard, a journalist hot on the trail of the peanut puzzle since her controversial Harper's article a couple years back, thinks the actual annual number of food allergy deaths is considerably smaller than the oft-quoted 150 to 200. Back in 2008 in a Huffington Post piece she reported the CDC listed only 11 deaths related to food-induced anaphylaxis in 2005. There were 12 in 2004 according to a 2008 New York Times article.
Why the larger estimate? Here's Broussard's answer:
The 150-200 death estimate comes from the media resource kit of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, a lobbying and educational group headed by a former marketing executive at Dey Pharmaceuticals, the maker of the EpiPen adrenaline injector (which is prescribed to millions of food-allergic patients).From The Food Allergy and Analphylaxis Network. OF COURSE. An organization devoted to spreading the word about food allergies, that yes, can be life-threatening but that rarely kill anyone despite the considerable hype. They help a lot of families but I see no reason why they shouldn't try to get the numbers correct. Unless of course they enjoy freaking out parents and children - come on, ANAPHYLAXIS in the title, really?
Fearmongering aside, where did FAAN get the numbers?
From one measly 1999 study from Olmstead county in Minnesota. A retrospective study tracking anaphylaxis - of all sorts, not just food-related - among its citizenry. How many people died? One. One death that wasn't related to food. A man's throat swelled up while exercising. Not eating.
The authors concluded "the incidence of anaphylaxis is less than 1%, and death rarely occurs." Less than 1%. DUH. The rate for food-induced death? Way lower than 1%.
Yes it's just one study, it could be larger. But it's ONE study. ONE tiny study does not yield a solid estimate.
So if extrapolated to the larger population it would still be less than 1%. So how that became like 200 annual deaths is entirely unclear. If the CDC is correct,the actual number is really too small to even quantify in a meaningful way. That said, it's still possible the rate is higher. But surely the symptoms of food-induced analphylactic death are difficult to miss or confuse with another condition.
Why pick on peanut allergies?
Some very smart professionals like noted Harvard Ph.D. and M.D. Nicholas Christakis worry that we're getting carried away with peanut-free environments to some not inconsequential consequences, like perhaps, more allergies. Oh yeah, there's some intriguing and troubling new evidence that early avoidance (no nuts during pregnancy, breast-feeding, or first three years of life) might not only be ineffective but harmful. Actually promoting more allergies. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics revised it's no-nuts recommendation recently.
If you're interested in the evolution of the new evidence and the no-nuts recommendation, check out my recent scoop on Parent Dish - Peanut Allergies: Snack with a Side of Drama. It's a drama alright.
Great article about it in the New Yorker too (The Peanut Puzzle:Could the conventional wisdom on children and allergies be wrong?). Yes the New Yorker. Not kidding. It's rather pathetic parents have to track down a hard copy of a literary magazine to find out what's really going on. If you have a subscription to it already what are you doing slumming it here? Although I might need a subscription too if they continue to cover these kinds of health/parenting stories.
Is there a Food Allergy Curse? Kind of like the King Tut curse that afflicts those who touch the royal tomb. Just realized the red licorice I'd been nibbling on from Whole Foods (an infrequent treat, the shop not candy) - has "natural strawberry flavoring." Uggh. I'm allergic to strawberries - it's near the bottom ingredients so I shouldn't be wheezing as I've already dosed up for the day. Who flavors licorice with strawberry? Isn't red suppose to be cherry???? Last time I wrote about food allergies my son's face swelled up. Time before, I got a rash. I'm not superstitious but....