Are we being hysterical?
December 13, 2008, professor of medical sociology and attending physician, Dr. Nicholas A Christakis, published an article in the British Medical Journal called "This allergies hysteria is just nuts." He asserts that the "extreme responses" to food allergies and nuts in particular, "...bear many of the hallmarks of mass psychogenic illness (MPI), previously and quaintly known as "epidemic hysteria." MPI is a social network phenomenon involving otherwise healthy people in a cascade of anxiety."
Hmm, mass hysteria? I don't know that I agree about that exactly. But I do think something very usual is going on here.
Dr. Nicholas A Christakis writes of his children's school, which has adopted measures to ensure nut-allergic children's safety such as "...declaring themselves to be entirely "nut free" ... Not only are nuts and staples like peanut butter prohibited from campus, but so too are homemade baked goods or any foods without detailed ingredient labels. School entrances have signs admonishing visitors to wash their hands before entry to avoid contamination. "
The doctor continues, that "... these responses represent a gross over-reaction to the magnitude of the threat."
Why does he think there's a "mass hysteria" happening, rather than acknowledging that perhaps all of these kids really are that severely food allergic? My theory is that when Dr Christakis looked at the fears and responses about nut allergies in the school system and the statistical available data available on how many people actually die from ingesting an allergen, he thought the anxiety surrounding the issues seemed disproportionate to the actual risk of death. The numbers he quotes: "...only 150 people (children and adults) die each year from food allergies combined. Compare that with [the] 45,000 who die in motor vehicle collisions. Or compare it with the 10, 000 hospitalisations (sic) of children each year for traumatic brain injuries acquired during sports or the 2000 who drown or the roughly 1300 who die from gun accidents."
About those numbers: it's well known within the medical community that anaphylaxis is commonly mis-diagnosed or missed by coroners on death reports, so the number of those who die from severe allergic reactions is probably much higher than the 150 number stated. The same goes for his 2,000 hospitalizations a year due to allergies. (I wonder where he got that number; he doesn't say.)
According to Dr Christakis, the mass hysteria, "...also encourages more parents to have their children tested, thus detecting mild and meaningless "allergies" to nuts." It seems we think similarly on this point. Not that allergies are meaningless, but that the blood tests and their easy false positive results may not be helping the current situation.
Personally, I wonder if the allergen blood tests are partly to blame for the spike in "allergies." Blood tests, generally speaking, test sensitivity NOT a probability (see more discussion at the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology). I feel that these tests send parents into an over-protective panic, believing that their child could die if exposed and then you have what Dr Christakis discusses: mass psychogenic illness.