WASHINGTON — The deaths of two girls in Illinois and Virginia from severe food allergies have helped spur efforts to get schools to stockpile emergency medications that can save lives.
That effort has now reached the highest level: President Obama’s desk. The president signed a bipartisan bill on Wednesday that offers a financial incentive to states if schools stockpile epinephrine, considered the first-line treatment for people with severe allergies. The medication is administered by injection, through preloaded EpiPens or similar devices.
Several states have passed or are considering bills that also aim to stock epinephrine in schools, primarily in nurse’s offices. And late last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its first guidelines to schools on how to protect kids with food allergies. The guidelines, which are voluntary, ask schools to take steps to restrict common foods that cause allergic reactions and to make epinephrine available.
Epinephrine is used for severe allergic reactions, called anaphylaxis, to food, insect bites, latex, and medication. Policies vary by school, district, and state about the handling of epinephrine and access to high allergy-risk foods. Some schools have peanut-free lunch tables .
The epinephrine stockpiling is aimed primarily at children who have previously undiagnosed allergies or as a backup for those with known allergies.
‘‘Most people are very accepting, but you still have those people who are very skeptical who haven’t seen an anaphylactic reaction and don’t understand,” said Sally Porter, a Sammamish, Wash., mother whose 10-year-old son has a severe peanut allergy. She and her husband had to call paramedics to their house when their son was 1 after he broke out in hives and had other symptoms right after consuming peanut butter.
‘‘I think we’re coming into a new time when people are going to understand and they’re going to get it, and it’s sad these children are dying who don’t have to be dying,” Porter said. ‘‘There’s a way to save them. Just by having this medicine.”
About 1 in 20 US children have food allergies, a 50 percent increase from the late 1990s, according to a CDC survey.
The deaths of Katelyn Carlson, 13, in a Chicago school in 2010 and Ammaria Johnson, 7, in a Chesterfield County, Va., school in 2012 raised awareness of the dangers of food allergies. But before then, a grass-roots group of parents had lobbied school districts, state leaders, and Congress for help.
House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer’s 11-year-old granddaughter, Alexa, has a severe peanut allergy and twice had to be taken to the emergency room as a young child. The Maryland lawmaker co-sponsored the House bill along with Representative Phil Roe, Republican of Tennessee.
‘‘It’s a very positive step in raising awareness, but I must say I think school systems all over the country are becoming better and better educated on the risks that food allergies pose,” Hoyer said.
Children with allergies often have epinephrine stored at school specifically for them. The epinephrine stockpile is not meant to replace that.
Pittsburgh-based Mylan Inc. said it is has distributed free EpiPens to more than 30,000 schools to use in emergencies. It donates four EpiPens to schools that request them.
Some parents of children with severe allergies are no longer sending their kids to schools with the self-injectable epinephrine prescribed to them, said Dr. Todd Mahr, an allergist in La Crosse, Wis.
He said these kids need to be protected throughout the school day on school buses, on field trips, and at sporting events.