What's nuts, Chatelaine, is not to be concerned

Gwen Smith challenges Chatelaine's dismissal of childhood food allergies.

When the top women's magazine in the country takes a snide, cynical run at a serious health issue that affects children, these are truly different times in the publishing industry.

The magazine is Chatelaine, and the hit-and-run article in its December issue is called "It's Just Nuts."

Gwen Smith is the editor of Allergic Living magazine and was the editor-in-chief of Elm Street magazine, when it ended its seven-year run in 2004.

This story by writer Patricia Pearson begins with the image of parents and schools across the land "cowering in fear of the tiny peanut," followed by a conclusion disguised as a question: "Are we overreacting to food allergies?"

In the telling, the writer skewers the hard-won accommodations in schools to protect food-allergic children, confuses facts and statistics, and never pauses to speak to a principal or a parent of a child who has experienced anaphylaxis, the most serious form of allergic reaction.

Had she spoken to a teacher, she would likely have heard why restrictions on certain foods are easier to manage in the classroom setting than having to watch, hawk-like, over those who can eat peanut butter and those who can get seriously ill from exposure to even traces of a substance that sticks on toys, doors and shared equipment.

What's the beef?

So what is the Chatelaine writer's beef with schools and food-allergy management plans?

It seems the principal at her son's school has asked that peanuts not be allowed on the premises and this means that her son can't bring a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. He is a picky eater and this, for her family, is a hardship.

But what is disturbing is not just Ms. Pearson's insensitivity to a diagnosed medical condition.

It is that this article ran in Chatelaine, the warm, sensitive, loyal best friend to Canadian women and their children.

The magazine, with its impressive reach of 3.5 million readers, is known for strong lifestyle fare — recipes, fitness and home décor stories — and, when it comes to feature articles, for consistently fair reporting.

In Canada, getting taken down in Chatelaine is as close as it gets to being kneecapped by Oprah.

Bashing outbreaks

Food-allergy bashing has had sporadic outbreaks before.

In fact, the magazine I edit, Allergic Living, published a cover article on the topic last spring. This followed a negative story in Harper's magazine in January 2008 and an editorial by a Harvard social scientist who dubbed the rise of food allergies "mass hysteria."

His views were swiftly debunked by renowned allergists. But since the professor used the word "hysteria," it was his anecdotal views that grabbed the headlines.

Likewise, Pearson depicts the allergy accommodations by schools as "hysteria," and parents of food-allergic kids as suffering "teeth-clenching neurosis."

It's funny how when a medical condition doesn't affect your life, you can presume that it is overblown.

But what is also interesting here is that, despite an outpouring of letters objecting to the Chatelaine article, including one from Dr. Susan Waserman, past president of the Canadian Society of Allergists and Clinical Immunology, and Laurie Harada, executive director of Anaphylaxis Canada, Chatelaine stands firmly with its writer.

In fact, editor Maryam Sanati has been on the radio, perpetuating her writer's misinformed assumption that the dramatic rise in food allergies is a myth. "Let's not call this an epidemic," she told a Halifax interviewer.

Four per cent of the population

The irony is that the Canadian publication that first labeled the steep rise in food allergies an "epidemic" was Maclean's magazine, Chatelaine's relative in the Rogers Media stable.

In June, 2006, Maclean's ran an article titled "The Allergy Epidemic," in which it's writer spoke to many experts, among them Dr. Judah Denburg, the scientific director of Canada's AllerGen research network.

Denburg explained that the incidence of this condition had risen dramatically from less than one per cent of the North American population in the 1990s to about four per cent today.

The pivotal study that started the "epidemic" discussion among scientists was that of Dr. Hugh Sampson of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

Published in 2004, this peer-reviewed study found an overall prevalence of four per cent of Americans with food allergies in a five-year study between 1997 and 2002. In younger children, the rate climbed to six per cent.

That represented a remarkably significant jump from under one per cent of the general population in the previous five-year study. As well, Sampson found a doubling of peanut allergies in children.

Given similar demographics and diet, Denburg said it is fair to extrapolate that Canadian rates are similar.

Canadian survey

Now, finally, Canada has its own national survey in the works. Overall prevalence rates won't be published until March, but some key early findings have been released.

According to this study, there are significantly higher rates of peanut allergy (1.52 per cent) among Canadian kids than among U.S. kids (.83 per cent).

Unfortunately for Chatelaine readers, its writer picked the wrong statistics to compare to back her thesis.

She noted a small rise in the rate of peanut allergy in two studies of Montreal schoolchildren — one in 2002 and the other in 2007.

She cold missed that the true comparison point in the epidemic is from the early and mid-1990s to the decade we are living in now. That's the period in which food allergies doubled, according to the research.

No one knows if the incidence of food allergies will continue to increase, they just know that a big bump started showing up and has stayed up since the late 1990s. 

Statistics are more illuminating when you translate them into what they represent.

Using Statistics Canada's latest figures, 1.52 per cent of children up to the age of 14 means there are almost 90,000 Canadian kids who are allergic to peanuts.

When the new study is completed we should know if Canada is like the U.S., with six per cent of its children having serious problems with the top 10 allergens. That would represent more than 350,000 kids under 14.

Now put faces on those kids, give them personalities and families and tell me - are they really not worth keeping safe in their schools? Does one's right to a sandwich trump another's right to safety in his classroom?

I would have thought I knew which side of this issue Chatelaine would be on. I am amazed to be wrong.