Eight months ago, facing a student having a severe allergic reaction, a school nurse in Prince George County, Va., took advantage of a new state law to save the child’s life.
Known as “Ammaria’s Law” after a 7-year-old who died after eating a peanut earlier last year, the law requires schools to keep epinephrine injectors on hand, allowing them to treat children who have serious allergic reactions. At least nine states have passed laws similar to this.
Unfortunately, here in Washington state, students, parents and nurses can only call 911 and wait because it is actually illegal for schools to keep epinephrine injectors on hand to care for students who don’t already have a prescription.
It is estimated that one-third of students with severe allergies don’t realize it, putting them at risk when a serious allergic reaction occurs.
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I know personally how challenging it can be to care for a child with serious allergies. My son, Nathan, a third-grade student at Downing Elementary School in Tacoma, suffers from life-threatening food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, milk and eggs.
I have seen many of the challenges that parents, teachers, administrators and other school staff face trying to keep students safe while at school. I work closely each new school year with the principal, Nathan’s teacher, the counselor and the lunchroom staff to develop a plan for keeping Nathan safe. We plan where his epi-pens will be, who will be trained how to use them and what foods are safe for Nathan to be around. We continue the communication throughout the school year.
Our family is lucky, however. At least we know what we are facing each day regarding life-threatening allergies. Some families find out about allergies and epinephrine after it is too late and their child has had a fatal reaction while in school. I don’t want to see this happen again.
The good news is there is a way to face this problem.
Senate Bill 5104, which would allow schools to keep epinephrine injectors on hand, has been proposed in the Legislature. There are several reasons this makes sense:
• Epinephrine is epinephrine. All epi-pens utilize the same medicine.
• Epinephrine cannot do major harm to an individual even if given when not needed.
• School office staff are usually assigned the task of keeping track of the epi-pens. I have seen the number of epi-pens in the school and how they have to be kept alphabetically. It is unfair to expect school staff in an emergency to sort through a listing of prescriptions to make sure they have the correct one (when it is all the same medicine anyway) and administer it in a timely fashion. With anaphylaxis, seconds matter; quick access to epi-pens can be the difference between life and death.
• Defibrillators, which are more difficult to use, are in many public places in case of emergency. Epi-pens should be handled in a similar fashion since they are another life-saving tool.
Some wonder why it is illegal for schools to take these common-sense measures now. Prescriptions are required to protect those administering the medication to students from liability issues. The proposed law addresses these liability concerns.
Additionally, epinephrine does not cause harm even if the patient is not, in fact, having an allergic reaction. On the other hand, anaphylactic reactions can be fatal so quickly that waiting for the 911 response may be too late for a child with an undiagnosed allergy.
I encourage legislators to adopt this legislation – a law that has already saved lives elsewhere and has been passed in several other states.
Unlike so many political fights these days, we already know the risks and we know how to address them. The only question is will we allow schools to carry the cure rather than simply call for help and wait.
Michael San Soucie is the father of a Tacoma student with life-threatening food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, milk and eggs. He is a board member of the Seattle Children’s Food Allergy Education Advisory Board and has worked with the Seattle Mariners for the past five seasons to allow a peanut-controlled zone during certain games for families dealing with peanut allergies.