By Amir Vera
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – When Tiffany Glass Ferreira’s son Charlie was 3, she offered him a treat that nearly killed him.
“I gave him cashews. He took one bite and started to have a severe reaction, where he was crying, grabbing his tongue – his face started to swell,” Ferreira said. “He looked like a Klingon, like a science-fiction character.”
Charlie, now 5, ultimately recovered. To save other children from potentially fatal reactions to food allergies, Virginia last week adopted a law requiring schools to carry epinephrine auto-injectors, such as EpiPens.
These devices deliver a single dose of epinephrine, or adrenaline, into the thigh of someone suffering a life-threatening allergic reaction.
After talking with other mothers in support groups, Ferreira, who supports the EpiPen legislation, said she realized she can’t stop Charlie from having another reaction, but she can be prepared for it.
“I said, ‘How can I prevent this from happening again?’ Another mom said to me, ‘You can’t. It’s going to happen again. You can’t think if they have a reaction. You have to think when,’” Ferreira said.
The “when” factor is exactly what Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) had in mind when he introduced Senate Bill 656. SB 656 will require schools to carry epinephrine auto-injectors in case a child has a severe allergic reaction.
“The EpiPen bill does two things. For those jurisdictions that already had … the EpiPens in the schools, it allows them to have enough flexibility to continue handling the EpiPen issue the way they’ve been handling it,” McEachin said. “For everybody else, it writes a protocol as to the need to have the EpiPen in the school, who can administer it and who can write prescriptions for it, because at the end of the day, it’s a medicine and it has to be prescribed.”
The bill also requires school nurses and other employees to be trained before injecting students with EpiPens.
“This is a very important step in saving lives in our schools,” said Ashburn resident Jon C. Gonzalez, co-founder of the Chantilly-based Food Allergy Foundation. “Schools need to continuously provide food allergy education to all those involved with children during normal hours as well as during after school activities.”
Gonzalez said reports show that 6 million children under 18 suffer with a food allergy in the United States and that 25 percent of food allergy reactions in schools occur in students who have not been diagnosed with a food allergy.
During its regular session, the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed SB 656 and an identical House bill, HB 1107, sponsored by Delegate Thomas “Tag” Greason (R-32).
Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) recommended that the legislation be amended to make it clear that school boards must implement the EpiPen law by the start of the 2012-13 school year. On Wednesday, the House and Senate unanimously approved McDonnell’s recommendations. The governor plans to sign the law April 26.
John Rokenbrod, a spokesman for the Amelia County public school system west of Richmond, said current laws require students to bring their own medications, such as EpiPens, to school.
“In the past, you had to have specific permission for that student. You had to have a prescription and permission to administer the medication,” Rokenbrod said.
The new legislation is intended to ensure that children without an EpiPen are not out of luck when they have an allergic reaction. Also, school officials will be trained to recognize signs of a severe reaction and to administer epinephrine.
McEachin’s bill was introduced shortly after 7-year-old Ammaria Johnson, a first-grader at Hopkins Elementary School in Chesterfield County, died in January from an allergic reaction to peanuts.
Ammaria’s death prompted groups such as the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network in Fairfax to call for laws allowing schools to stock EpiPens for use in emergencies.
“Absolutely, this one was inspired by the death of that little girl,” McEachin said.
McEachin said he hopes the law will help avoid tragedies like Ammaria’s death.
“Maybe some little girl or some little boy won’t die from an allergy when that’s absolutely preventable,” McEachin said.
Unfortunately, an epinephrine pen cannot resolve all food allergy concerns.
“Currently there is no cure for those who suffer with life-threatening food allergies,” said The Food Allergy Foundation’s Gonzalez. “Strictly avoiding foods with allergens is the only prevention.”
Nonetheless, advocates anticipate the legislation could potentially save many lives.
[Dusty Smith contributed to this story.]
More on the Web
With a big dose of humor, Tiffany Glass Ferreira blogs about food allergies at www.foodallergyfun.blogspot.com. The blog showcases Ferreira’s cartoons and comments about the issue.
She writes: “It all started when my child’s first birthday ended with an allergic reaction and an ambulance. Since then, we’ve totally changed our lives to avoid a variety of common foods. I make art to spread awareness about food allergies, to teach my children about food safety and to laugh along the way.”
To read or comment on Senate Bill 656, visit the Richmond Sunlight website: www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2012/sb656/
[Capital News Service is an entity of Virginia Commonwealth University.]