Allergic reactions: readiness is key

By Katherine Sather

More than 80 students in the Mercer Island School District have severe allergies to certain foods, latex or bee-stings.

School nurses say the district has a high level of reported allergies, and are reminding parents to update their children's prescriptions and school-based treatment plans.

The increase in reported food allergies follows a nationwide trend, said Debbie Calhoun, specialist with the state Office of the Superintendent's Child Nutrition Program. She said schools are getting better at tracking the conditions. Bonnie Barthelme, school nurse at Islander Middle School, said parents could also be talking about it more, especially in a well-educated area like Mercer Island.

``It could be because of the awareness factor,'' she said.

Barthelme is one of three nurses in the district who say they started aggressively tracking food allergies and working with staff before it became state law. Federal law has long required schools to provide substitutions in school lunches for students with food allergies. In 2002, the Legislature passed a bill with more strict regulations for parents and school employees.

Parents are required to notify schools of their children's allergies, help staff prepare a treatment plan for students, and provide a doctor's authorization for medication. Each must be updated each year.

``Now its become more than common sense, it's the law,'' Barthelme said.

Schools in the state can prohibit students from attending classes until they've met these requirements, but Mercer Island is `` a bit kinder,'' she said. Nurses will contact parents to remind them, and parents in the district are usually responsible.

``We've got really good parents who take the extra step,'' she said.

Schools are required to train teachers, office staff, principals, coaches, playground supervisors and even bus drivers to deal with food allergies.

``We're a proactive group of nurses,'' Barthelme said. ``We talk to teachers and remind them about different type of allergies, so when there's projects or birthday celebrations, they're avoiding the allergens.''

The national Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network reports that one in 25 children have a food allergy. Most common allergies in the Mercer Island School District are peanuts and tree nuts, but a few students have latex allergies and cannot be around latex balloons. Reaction to these substances can include hives, rashes, nausea, shortness of breath and swelling of the lips, tongue and mouth.

If a student has a reaction that teachers are unaware of, they use basic first aid procedures and call 911, Barthelme said. If a student is know to have an allergy, the staff will follow his or her treatment plan and may administer an injection with an EpiPen, a shot containing epinephrine that reverses the effects of the allergic reaction.

Students who don't have food allergies should also be cautious about what they bring to school. Their parents are notified at the beginning of the year if they have classmates with food allergies. Sharing food is prevented in grade schools. It's also another reason why food fights are discouraged.

``A few times a year something is going to happen,'' Barthelme said of an allergic reaction. ``We're very involved, but we can always do more.''

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