One of the most common milk allergy questions I’ve heard over the years is “you can’t actually die from a milk allergy, can you?” It isn’t even a direct question, but rather a shaky statement of disbelief. People can’t seem to fathom that their beloved dairy could cause such harm to anyone. They assume peanuts are the only true danger. But cow’s milk has been named the third most common food, after peanuts and tree nuts, to cause anaphylaxis. And in the UK, a recent study found milk to be the most common cause of food allergy fatality in children.
Milk Allergy is a Leading Cause of Anaphylaxis, and Awareness
It might also surprise you to now that a tragic milk allergy nearly 20 years ago was the instigator of today’s food allergy legislation. It was the wrath of cheese, not peanuts or almonds, which spurred a mother to lobby for better safety measures. One of our favorite allergy moms turned activist has the story for us. But a word of warning: get the tissues ready before you read this story.
The Promise, by Gina Clowes of AllergyMoms
One of the challenges faced by parents raising food-allergic children is that the condition is hidden. One cannot look at an allergic child and see that they might be fatally harmed by a healthy food such as milk, egg or peanut. Food is everywhere, and it can feel like a minefield to parents trying to protect their young children. Allergy moms are accustomed to folks dismissing them as anxious or overprotective.
Yet there is one mom who doesn’t get those rolled eyes, at least not anymore. Sara Shannon is the mother of Sabrina Shannon, a beautiful and vivacious 8th grader from Ontario, Canada who died from food induced anaphylaxis. It is believed that she was exposed to a trace amount of dairy on tongs that were used to serve French fries in her school cafeteria.
It was September 29, 2003 and Sabrina told her mother she didn’t want another sandwich for lunch. Always careful about her allergies, she had checked with the cafeteria and found they served safe French fries which she had eaten once the week before. They were delicious and she wanted to have them again.
Sara hesitated, but she knew Sabrina was responsible about her allergies. She gave her daughter money for the fries. Sara can still clearly see that five dollar bill in her daughter’s hand.
Sabrina ordered the French fries at lunch after double checking that the oil they were fried in was safe. After eating, Sabrina and a friend, headed to geography class where Sabrina felt ill and started to wheeze. Accompanied by another student, Sabrina walked to the school office on the other side of the building, stumbling along the way.
Sabrina’s last conscious moments were as she arrived at the school office and complained of difficulty breathing. It finally dawned on a teacher there that Sabrina may be experiencing anaphylaxis and someone ran to her locker to retrieve her EpiPen. But Sabrina collapsed and lost consciousness before it could be administered. School officials called for an ambulance and to notify Sara.
It was a beautiful, sunny day and Sara says she can still see the kids playing soccer outside the school as she arrived at the school. Then she saw Sabrina as she was carried out on a stretcher, her long red hair spilling over the sides. She noticed Sabrina’s hand, the same hand that held the lunch money, only this time it hung down loosely in a way that terrified her.
As Sabrina was transported by ambulance to Pembroke General Hospital, she had no pulse. Her heart had stopped but was restarted. She was airlifted to a Children’s hospital in Ontario, but it was too late. She was without oxygen for too long. There was talk of extensive brain damage; vital organs were shutting down. Sabrina’s family surrounded her and Sara made a promise to her daughter. She promised Sabrina that she would do everything possible to prevent this from happening to another family. It was September 30, 2003.
Not a day – not an hour – goes by that Sara doesn’t think of Sabrina. One way that Sara has found to deal with the unimaginable grief is to keep the promise that she made. With the support of many others and with a story that clearly illustrates the need for food allergy awareness and training, Sara has worked hard to get a law to protect food allergic students in school – a law that has come to be known as “Sabrina’s Law.”
A year after Sabrina’s death, the chief coroner of Eastern Ontario, Dr. Andrew McCallum called for schools to implement policies to protect food allergic students. Dave Levac, a Member of Provincial Parliament (similar to a State Senator) in Ontario sponsored Bill 3, an Act to protect anaphylactic students. Private members bills like this one rarely pass but there were a multitude of angles working behind the scenes to make it happen. On May 16, 2005 Bill 3 passed, and was renamed Sabrina’s Law.
Sabrina’s law is the first law of its kind in Canada. It requires schools to develop anaphylaxis management plans including risk reduction, storage and training of epinephrine auto-injectors, emergency procedures and training for staff. Sabrina’s law is not a ban of any kind, and does not address any specific allergens. Studies are underway in Ontario to measure the effectiveness of Sabrina’s Law and the difference between Ontario and other provinces without such a law.
Why Food Allergy Legislation is Essential
It was later established that the tongs used to serve fries to Sabrina were used to serve orders with poutine. They were unknowingly cross-contaminated by the gravy and cheese curds. Sara knew, had there been better allergen protocols in the school kitchen, or awareness training with school staff, or easier access to an epi-pen, then the tragedy could have been averted. Had Sabrina’s law been in place three years ago, Sara believes her only daughter would still be here. Sabrina’s aunt, Kathleen Whelen, writes:
Like many kids with serious allergies, Sabrina was educated and she was careful. But she couldn’t live in a bubble. She had a right to engage with the world, and live a vibrant life. She did her part to protect herself, but it wasn’t enough. The rest is up to us.
A Legacy of Food Allergy Awareness and Legislation
There is still work to be done, but the activism that Sara Shannon spawned continues to this day. Numerous food allergy laws have passed through the tireless efforts of parents and people with food allergies themselves. The legislation reaches schools of all levels, restaurants, and even transportation. And it continues to improve our food allergy labeling laws for stores.