'I dare you to die today': Bullies using peanuts to torment allergic kids

Peanut allergy treatment on horizon

Australian researchers say a successful trial treatment containing peanut protein and probiotics has laid the groundwork for an experimental peanut allergy vaccine.

They thought it would be funny: During lunch, the boys threw peanuts at a fellow student with severe food allergies. The Los Angeles area fifth-grader was so sensitive to nuts that exposure might send him to the emergency room.

He said: "No, stop. That could kill me." When he turned away to talk to a friend, one of the boys stashed peanuts in the container that held his lunch. Seeing the nasty trick, the allergic boy's friends quickly grabbed the container and threw it away, possibly saving their friend from a terrible accident.

This incident from 2015 appeared on a website for families dealing with food allergies. The mother of the bullied boy was interviewed for this story but spoke on the condition of anonymity because of privacy concerns.

Bullying is all-too-common on school campuses.
Bullying is all-too-common on school campuses. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer

Food is a prop for celebration and for pranks. We throw rice at a wedding and a whipped-cream pie at a clown. But there's nothing funny about it when bullies turn food into a weapon to frighten or harm those with allergies.

Researchers have recently begun studying these incidents.

Bullying, harassing and teasing of children with food allergies seems "common, frequent, and repetitive," concluded a 2010 study that surveyed 353 food-allergic teens, adults and the parents of food-allergic children.

Food allergies affect an estimated 15 million Americans, including 6 million children, according to Food Allergy Research & Education, an advocacy group. That amounts to 1 in every 13 young people in the classroom. The prevalence of food allergies among children rose to 5.1 per cent in 2009-2011 from 3.4 per cent in 1997-1999, according to the CentresĀ for Disease Control and Prevention.

For those afflicted, ingestion of certain foods makes the immune system overreact; reactions can range from mild, such as itchiness, to potentially fatal anaphylaxis, a condition that can include trouble breathing and poor blood circulation.

Eight foods seem to cause most reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. People with severe food allergies often carry lifesaving medications such as epinephrine injectors and must be extremely vigilant about their exposure to certain foods.

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Sometimes even a small amount is all it takes to cause a reaction - and that small amount could be delivered in a bullying prank.

Several months ago, a Michigan college student had his face smeared with peanut butter, allegedly in a fraternity hazing that left him with swollen eyes. The student's father said the fraternity had been made aware that he was severely allergic. As a result, a fraternity member faces misdemeanour charges.

Bullying related to food allergies "elevates play into violence," said Sandra Beasley, author of the food-allergy memoir Don't Kill the Birthday Girl.

Peanuts are one of the most common food allergens.
Peanuts are one of the most common food allergens. Photo: Patrick Sison

Those responsible, she said, know what damage they may be causing when they punch someone or hold a victim underwater. But with food allergies, they "may not recognise the physical consequence of what they're doing. They probably literally cannot measure it."

Several years ago, pediatrics professor Scott Sicherer noticed troubling stories from some of his patients at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. Children would end up in tears because others had teased or threatened or criticised them about their food allergies.

Some said that classmates had insisted they touch food containing an allergen dangerous to them. Parents were often unaware their children had been bullied.

School yard bullying.
School yard bullying. Photo: Janie Barrett

Recognising that bullying in general was becoming a problem, Sicherer and colleagues have focused on identifying the prevalence and impact of food-allergy bullying. In a survey of 251 families from an allergy clinic, the researchers reported in a 2013 study in Pediatrics, 31 per cent of children reported being bullied or harassed specifically because of food allergies.

While bullying or harassment caused the children great distress, only about half of the parents knew about it when it was occurring, the study found. Children's quality of life improved when their parents knew of the bullying, researchers found.

Bullying occurs for a variety of reasons, depending on the age of the bully.

"In general, bullying can happen anytime that somebody is different," said Linda Herbert, an assistant professor in the Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health at Children's National Health System. Sometimes bullying arises from ignorance, sometimes from a desire to exert power.

Very small children are often curious about peers' being told to sit at nut-free tables and may question them about their special treatment. In grade school, an allergic child may be singled out at parties or activities that involve food and subjected to bullying.

As children grow older, they develop a wide range of bullying and teasing tactics, according to Herbert. Some will mock a person who has an allergy and is different. "I've even had kids who've had very active attacks against them," Herbert said. In one case, she said, a bully wiped peanut butter on a child and taunted, "I dare you to die today."

Sometimes, teachers can make the situation worse. "We were surprised to find that teachers were included on the list of perpetrators," Sicherer said. If a teacher singles out a child as the reason a party will be avoided or an activity missed, "maybe that doesn't fall into the definition of bullying, but at least from the perspective of the child, it does," he said. "That's the kind of subtleties that happen here."

Washington Post