Tuesday, January 08, 2008

And In Other Food Allergy News . . . Sigh.

It should be apparent to anyone listening to the NPR interview of journalist Meredith Broussard on the topic of food allergies that this woman is trying to stir up the proverbial pot. Talk about a conspiracy theorist! I suppose that sells more magazines and advertisements. I'm sorry to say that I bought the latest issue of Harper's so I could read her cutting-edge expose´ about the overstated dangers of food allergies. I wish I could get my money back, but I wrote all over the article.

The following comments pertain to the Harper's article, not the interview. As usual, insightful commentary (aka "snarks") are available to readers of This Blog free-of-charge.

Wow. There isn't even a pretense of objectivity or balanced reporting. She uses inflammatory language to make her point and insinuates that the "myth" of food allergies must of course be under scrutiny simply because of the existence of FAAN and the fact that FAAN has physicians working with them to research food allergies. I can hardly stand it. Would FAAN really be able to support its mission to "raise public awareness, to provide advocacy and education, and to advance research on behalf of all those affected by food allergies and anaphylaxis" if it didn't have medical advisers?

Full disclosure: I am a member of FAAN and have raised money for them and have used their materials to help educate my family and friends about my son's mythical dangerous allergy. However, the fact that I am a FAAN member does not necessarily imply that I agree 100% with their recommendations or policies or everything they do ever.

Here are some of the juicy bits (but don't read if you are allergic to propaganda sensationalist reporting--luckily for you, I merely have an intolerance and am unlikely to break out in hives over this disgustingly poor display of "journalism") [all emphasis added]:

"Children are even being recruited to help battle this supposed threat . . . ." Hmmm...could some of these children being recruited (into what? a cult?) be actual food allergy sufferers and therefore would be working for their own best interests?

"But the rash [bah-dum-bum!] of fatal food allergies is mostly myth, a cultural hysteria cooked up with a few key ingredients: fearful parents in an age of increased anxiety, sensationalist news coverage, and a coterie of well-placed advocates whose dubious science has fed the frenzy." Wow. Where to start? It should be plain that Ms. Broussard is just as sensationalist as she accuses we "fearful parents" of being. I doubt the families and friends of these people would agree that these allergies are "mostly myth." I'm pretty sure I didn't dream spending the night at the hospital after Ryan's first taste of peanut butter and that the few times he's touched peanuts since then have resulted in hives.

"FAAN has successfully passed off as fact its message that food allergies have become more prevalent and dire." Lots and lots of scientist peopleguys have figured this out, too, not just FAAN. Ms. Broussard makes it sound as if FAAN is the singlehandedly responsible for all food allergy statistics. I need to investigate this for myself, but I'm pretty sure the AAAAI (American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology) at least agrees with the 100-200 annual fatality figure. Part of the problem here is that it's difficult to pin down anaphylaxis as a cause of death. For instance, this 2000 study found: "In many cases of fatal anaphylaxis no specific macroscopic findings are present at postmortem examination. " Ms. Broussard must have missed this finding in the careful research phase of her article.

". . . [The "peanut kiss" fatality] confirmed for countless nervous parents their worst fears: food-allergic children were in constant danger--they could "even die!" as FAAN warns [in a pamphlet]." Rant Coming, Please Understand: Really, how dare she? My kid IS in danger whenever there are peanuts around him. That sucks for him (and for his parents). My. Kid. Nearly. DIED. You. Bitch. It's not a game, it's not propaganda, it's not a marketing message. It's LIFE OR DEATH. No, we don't run from the room screaming every time we see a Mr. Peanut commercial. We are teaching him how to handle his allergy rationally. But to read Ms. Broussard actually poke fun at FAAN's pamphlet and insinuate that this is an exaggeration is beyond reprehensible.

"But there is simply no evidence that a food allergen can do serious harm if not ingested." She goes on to quote a physician who demonstrates this with his patients by smearing peanut butter on their arms. First of all, note that her physician is fine to use as a resource, but FAAN's physicians--many of whom have done ground-breaking research (Dr. Hugh Sampson)--are not objective. I completely agree--many people with food allergies do not react to contact with the allergen. Or, their reactions are mild compared to ingestion reactions. Stands to reason. But to claim that there is "no evidence" is beyond irresponsible. The AAAAI recommends in a patient education pamphlet
[this link is a pdf]: "the only way to make sure you won't have a reaction is to never taste, touch or even smell the food." Not only that--part of the concern about touching the allergen, which Ms. Broussard conveniently ignores or is perhaps too unintelligent to muddle out for herself (either of which is inexcusable in any competent reporter), is the very real chance that if a person--say a small child--has the allergen on her hands and then rubs her eyes or touches her mouth, the allergen enters the body and guess what? Full blown reaction.

"But all we know for certain now is that more parents think their children suffer from food allergies." Well, that isn't exactly ALL we know, but yes, that's absolutely true that many people claim to have food allergies who may not. Personally, I think many well-intentioned or under-informed people are very, very confused about "allergy" versus "intolerance." Just my pet theory. However, you can't infer that fatal food allergies are "mostly myth" because some people have it wrong, or do not take it seriously enough to carry an Epi-pen.

She quotes a CDC official, "We can't find any hard data that supports the severity [of food allergy reactions]." See one of the studies above about the difficulty of determining anaphylaxis as a cause of death. Also, journalist worth her salt would have learned that anaphylaxis is often misdiagnosed, particularly when the patient is asthmatic. Also, we have Epi-pens now--people can give themselves those shots before they get to the hospital. Does the hospital record that visit as an anaphylactic reaction if the reaction has been counteracted by the adrenaline shot? I really don't know the answer to that--just wondering, but I think it would be worth investigating.

Incredibly, Broussard then goes on basically accuse FAAN and Dey and Verus (the manufacturers of Epi-pens and Twinject) of some kind of suspicious collaboration. Why? Because Dey contributed funds for one of FAAN's websites and both Dey and Verus sponsor the Food Allergy Walks. She writes: "As part of its safety guidelines, FAAN suggests carrying an adrenaline injector at all times and regularly renewing the prescription." The implication here is that since FAAN promotes Dey and Verus, then the recommendation to carry an Epi-pen at all times and get the prescription refilled is clearly a conspiracy to sell more Epi-pens. W. T. F.? According to the AAAAI's recommendations: "
Your allergist/immunologist may also prescribe a self-injectable epinephrine shot to carry with you. This medication reverses the allergic reaction, at least temporarily, to provide the life-saving time needed to get further treatment in a medical facility. Learn how to self-administer the epinephrine according to your allergist/immunologist's instructions, and replace the device before the labeled expiration date." Yeah, it's all a big FAAN-Verus-Dey conspiracy to make food-allergy patients buy and keep buying injectable adrenaline. It's got nothing whatsoever to do with doctors or medicine.

"For instance, the coauthors of an oft-cited study on the dangers facing food-allergic children at restaurants were . . . a top FAAN executive, and a FAAN medical-board member whose research is funded in part by FAI [Food Allergy Initiative]." So what? Are you implying that the American Heart Association doesn't have expert cardiologists on the cutting edge of research that contribute to studies funded by the AHA and other interested organizations? Where's the expose´about that?

"There is no question that food allergies are real." Finally! A statement that is completely true!

"Yet . . . exaggerating the threat may actually do as much harm as the allergies themselves. The peril is now perceived as so great that psychosomatic reactions to foods and their odors are not uncommon." Really? I'd love to find out where she got that information. Is there a study? Sure, I bet some people have worked themselves into an anxiety attack over their food allergies. People who are afraid of dogs do the same thing. Is there any concrete evidence to support the implication that people who are understandably anxious over accidental exposure to food allergens are somehow more prone to anxiety attacks than someone afraid of dogs or heights or bad journalists? What is she playing at here?

"One study documented how food-allergic youths become terror-stricken when inside places like supermarkets and restaurants . . . ." Gee, it sure would be nice to have a citation here. And really, there are ways of managing your fear about your food allergies. Just because SOME people do a poor job of handling their anxiety doesn't mean we are ALL hyperventilating upon stepping out into the great peanut-infested universe.

"Such psychological distress is exacerbated by parents, who report keeping their children away from birthday parties and sending them to school in "No Nuts" T-shirts." I'm at a loss. Never have I kept Ryan from a birthday party, but I sure as hell would if it were held at the Peanut Farm. Most parents of food-allergic children try their absolute damnedest to ensure that their kids get to do everything other kids get to do, within their margin of safety. It's all too easy for someone who clearly doesn't "get it," such as Ms. Broussard, to take armchair potshots at the decisions made by or on behalf of people with food allergies.

Conspiracy. Fraud. Myth. Hysteria. She accuses ME and everyone else in my position. We are the ones responsible for false statistics and histrionics and exaggeration. As Dr. Evil would say: Riiiigghht.

It should be very clear to the discerning reader that the real myth here is that of Harper's journalistic integrity and the basic research skills of Ms. Broussard. I would hope for a full retraction at some point in the future, but if this is the kind of "research" they routinely accept as worthy of publication, then I think I'll be waiting a long time for that retraction.


Monica said...

Um. Whoa.

I find those statements actually difficult to believe.

Canico said...

Oh...if you think the article is ridiculous, believe it or not, she made it on the airwaves of NPR! Here's the link, be warned it will make you scream! Read the 113 and growing comments posted after as well though:

Canico said...

Sorry, your blog was so good about the article, I forgot you mention the radio interview in the first line. I'd love to hear your humor about that too! aka. her Vermouth allergy?

Canico said...

Okay....now Meredith Broussard has posted two new enteries on her failed relationships blog about food allergies! Her comments feature is still turned off to no surprise. You can e-mail her at mer@failedrelationships.com The link to her blog is: http://www.failedrelationships.com/blog/blog.html
In one of her blogs she comments on Dr. Hugh Sampson and his upcoming interview on NPR...she needs to stop spouting.

Canico said...

Here is the latest article from the New York Times out today 1/9/07. It's an interesting piece about food allergies and some comments on FAAN and their allergists. The article comes at a time that the retirement announcement from FAAN coincidently happens in the same week. I don't think it has to do with Meredith Broussard's article, as much as this piece. FAAN still has saved lives....don't know what else to say about that.

Meredith Broussard has no merit in my book, but this woman has some interesting points. She also quotes the CDC's statistics from 2004, but states they may be underestimated for all we know, not overestimated like Broussard does. In the wonderful world of food allergies, who knows what to believe anymore! Can we ask that she also be on the NPR radio show on Jan. 31st? Her and Dr. Sampson may have slightly different takes?

Here's the article:

It would be nice to get some factual answers….
Carol Depke

ChupieandJ'smama said...

Great Post Jenn! This lady is a crack pot and I hate to keep giving her word play because this is all she wants but I'm off to check out the NYT article that canico posted and blast them if I have to. This has got to stop.

Ali said...

Thank you for such a well thought out and researched blog regarding such an opinionated article. Your points (and sarcasm) were spot on!

Flibbert said...

I don't understand WHY these people are so upset about other people having allergies.

It's not all that hard to resist eating a handful of peanuts and making out with a room full of second graders. I speak, of course, for myself only, but we're not talking about a major inconvenience for people who don't have allergies.

If you want to participate in things involving a large number of people (like public school), this is just one of the things you have to accept as part of the deal.

There. I said it. If you want to hang around other people, you have to keep from killing them.

I'm a radical.

Rational Jenn said...

Thanks to everyone for the comments and links. I am actually On A Break from Ms. Broussard at the moment (think Rachel and Ross) because I need to step back a bit. I'll write some more tomorrow or this weekend. Trust me, there's more.

Why do people raise such a stink about food allergies? My favorite pet theory is about Control. Food allergies are (seemingly) new and nobody has figured out just why it's happening and it is an inconvenience to people--the afflicted and innocent bystanders. On one hand the afflicted are inconvenienced with severe health issues, up to and including actual death. On the other, the innocent bystanders are being asked not to eat PB&Js in the presence of the afflicted. Death or Turkey Sandwich? Both are, evidently, extremely dire consequences.

What this woman has done is to deliberately and falsely cherry-pick her data to make it seem like FAAN and a couple drug companies and a few select doctors have colluded to terrorize thousands of innocent children. Well, the innocent bystanders are apparently Mad as Hell and Not Going to Take it Anymore. They are going to stand up for their God-given right to eat PB&J sandwiches and use eggs and milk in their cupcake recipes or go down trying.

As if I'm enjoying the fact that my kid could die from eating a yummy food. As if I'm enjoying the attention we got when half the neighborhood saw the fire trucks at our house. As if I've got nothing better to do.

More power to them. Fight the fight, I say. But don't expect it to be easy.

DM said...

Good news -- my husband developed a lethal peanut allergy when he was in his late thirties. Well, okay, that's not good news. The good news in terms of She Who Must Be Ever Hated is that she could wake up with an allergy tomorrow! She could find out just how much fun it is to spend your whole life feeling as if you have to guard against attack by an invisible enemy. She might learn the joys of looking forward to spending a Saturday alone while your son and husband go out and frolic, and then have it all canceled because somebody in the same elevator as your husband opened up a Snickers bar, so now you have to spend Saturday in the hospital instead. She might learn a lot! I wish I believed in a trickster deity, because I'd be willing to do some serious praying. Oh, well. Maybe the karma police will be on duty.

Rational Jenn said...

DM, you bring up an excellent point that is not widely known outside of food allergy circles. Anyone can develop an allergy to anything at any time. The rates of adult-onset allergies are increasing, too (don't have a citation handy just now). This is not just a matter of us over-protective mommies putting little Junior in a bubble and never letting them out of it. All kinds of crazy immune system diseases/conditions are on the rise. My husband got juvenile diabetes--two months before he turned 30!

Not that Ms. Broussard knows or cares. Boring facts and scientifically researched papers aren't as exciting as a good old-fashioned conspiracy theory!

Jenny in Ca said...

wow, really great post, you really did some researching. We do not have any food allergies such as those referenced, and I am really, really thankful- I just can't imagine the amount of work that goes into protecting someone with a food allergy. On a related thread, my son had some troubling intolerances to some foods when he was young and 3 of my kids have asthma, it floored me to realize that my parents did not believe they had asthma and they gave my son lots of the food that troubled him. It did/does make me angry to realize someone thinks you've made something up like that- it must go way beyond that for you. They usually saw my kids after I had spent nights nebulizing them and they did not see a real attack, likewise they never had to soak a sobbing toddler in a lukewarm bath because you could not clean his blistered body any other gentler way. I still feel a growl when I think of those days...