Children's food allergies leave parents with no room for error

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By Diane Haag, 12 Oct 2006

In the whirlwind of activities that makes up the life of a 4-year-old boy, something flashes on Luke Babin's arm.

A medical alert bracelet proclaims that he's a little different from other boys who play soccer and watch Curious George.

"I'm allergic to dairy," Luke explains.

Luke is one of about 12 million Americans who suffer from some food allergy, and the numbers are growing.

For Luke, dairy products provoke a life-threatening reaction, and even touching them causes a mild reaction. So there's no milk, ice cream, cheese, butter, yogurt and a whole list of other additives in his house.

To put it mildly, it's been a challenge for Luke's mom, Carrie Babin. So she is trying to form a support group for other parents of children with severe food allergies. The first meeting will be Saturday.

"It's about knowledge and educating the community and support," she said.

And the numbers of people with similar issues is growing, said Dr. Sami Bahna, chief of allergy and immunology as LSU Health Sciences Center. Multiple causes contribute to the allergies but he said a reduced number of mothers breast feeding and early introduction of solid food might have something to do with it.

Eight foods make up about 90 percent of food allergies: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. As people have more access to those foods, Bahna said the allergy rates are also increasing.

"Another reason for increasing is we depend more on packaged foods and outside foods," he said. "People are not cooking from scratch. When you're eating out, you can't guarantee what is in it."

Allergic reactions depend on the quantity eaten and the sensitivity of the person, and they can range from abdominal pain and vomiting to anaphylaxis, a sudden, severe reaction than can involve respiratory and heart problems.

"The deaths are usually from minute quantities in unexpected places at unexpected times," Bahna said. "We caution parents not to make it a topic of daily conversation,"

He said there's a fine line between protection and paranoia.

Carla Weaver of Shreveport said she sat down and cried when she realized the number of things her son, now 14, was allergic to. Milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, certain vegetables, and other foods all had to be removed from his diet.

"I got to where I didn't know what I could feed him," she said. "He felt like it was a curse."

But she learned to adapt. For parties, she sent him with special food. One year for his birthday, all the other kids ate a pumpkin-shaped cake while he had a special ghost cake made with rice flour.

Babin and her husband chose to take more extreme measures since Luke is contact allergic. They rid the house of dairy. They also limit other foods on the list of common allergens to give Luke a better chance of building up his immune system.

So instead of ice cream and peanut butter, Luke lists some of his favorite foods as strawberries and cauliflower.

Convenience foods are not safe, so mothers can spend hours making most things from scratch.

"Spaghetti sauce, I would make from scratch out of tomatoes," Weaver said. "And I wasn't someone that really knew how to cook."

Babin's cabinets are full of "free" items: gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free. Of course, a danger-free package of safe cookies can cost $6.

And even then they can be deceiving. She tried a cookie mix from a brand she knew that looked safe, but about 30 minutes later Luke started coughing. After a while on the phone with the manufacturer, she tracked it to the chocolate chips, which were produced by an outside vendor. They were made in a facility that also uses milk.

Since he's young, Luke has fairly strict guidelines. He knows that if anyone gives him food, he can't have it. Instead, Babin said she will have a "safe treat" ready for him.

This month, when he goes trick-or-treating, he'll give everything to the Sugar Witch in exchange for a toy.

"I have a feeling an accident is going to happen, even though I'm as high strung and hyper-vigilant as I can be," Babin said.

Weaver tried to keep her son's life as normal as possible.

"He had to go and live in the world," she said. "He needed to live with it. We needed to teach him how to live with it."

As a young child, she said he knew what he could and couldn't eat.

Occasionally, though she would hear him say "Mom, I have a fish back there" "" his way of saying it's getting very hard to breathe. That's why she always carried an EpiPen, an emergency dose of adrenaline for unexpected attacks.

He still carries one.

Over time many children, like Weaver's son, grow out of their allergies.

"Strict avoidance will sometimes help the immune system forget the allergy," Bahna said.

He said people sometimes think they can make the body get used to a substance by feeding the child a little bit at a time, but actually the opposite happens.

A few years ago, after eliminating so many foods, Weaver said the doctor suggested they try some of the offending eats. They did a blood test to see which provoked the weakest reactions and, slowly, she started adding them back to his diet.

"I was really scared but always kept EpiPen and he knew what reactions felt like," she said. "When he got to eat pretty much whatever he wanted he did that for about a month and then wanted to go back to his healthy foods."

At about 10 he had his first slice of pizza and ate scrambled eggs for the first time this summer.

The peanut allergy remains though "" even the smell of it triggers a reaction "" and it's the only thing Weaver doesn't keep in the house.

At 4 and a half, Luke's first day of school is coming closer. Babin wants to send him, but she's worried. She tried preschool and never felt safe enough.

She's not sure what to expect from the support group, but hopes those concerns could be alleviated.

"How do we navigate life when there's no room for error?"

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