Little Elijah Silvera, just three years old, died last week because someone misunderstood his well-documented allergy. That person was more dangerous to Elijah than the cheese sandwich he was fed, because were it not for that person’s actions, Elijah, too young to speak up for himself, wouldn’t have eaten it.
The most dangerous thing about food allergies isn’t the food – it’s misunderstanding them.
Allergies can trigger a life or death situation that only those who understand them can truly make an effort to prevent. Tragically for Elijah, that didn't include someone at the Seventh Avenue Centre for Family Services in Harlem, who fed him a grilled cheese sandwich, despite his known condition. Mistakes happen, but when it's literally someone's job prevent them from happening when small children are fed, is 'human error' a good enough justification?
Allergic reactions need immediate attention, but Elijah's carers called his mother, not an ambulance. It's unclear whether an EpiPen was available for use, but we do know that protocol wasn't followed. A series of mistakes were made. And now there's a dead child, and a heartbroken family. On the GoFundMe page set up by a family friend, Elijah's parents, Dina and Thomas, have said:
"We will use our voices to draw attention to *completely preventable* life-threatening allergic reactions in U.S. daycares and schools. These preventable tragedies must come to an end."
Elijah's parents are facing their toughest days, and yet, they have more fighting words;
"We would like to go on record as saying: Elijah’s death was completely preventable. 5.9 million children under the age of 18 suffer from food allergies in the United States. That’s 1 in 13 children, which works out to roughly two children with allergies inside of every U.S. classroom. WE CAN AND MUST DO MORE TO PROTECT OUR CHILDREN FROM LIFE THREATENING ALLERGIC REACTIONS IN U.S. SCHOOLS."
That emphasis comes from them. They are angry. They know their child was failed.
We're living in the most allergy-aware time ever, with numerous organisations and even The Wiggles dedicating themselves to the issue; and yet tragedy after tragedy keeps happening because allergies aren't understood, and so the risks aren't accepted.
Parents ignore the letters sent home from school, because they don't see why their child should go without certain foods just because of other kids' 'preferences'. When allergies are doubted by adults, it teaches their children the same attitude. Which is why, increasingly, we're seeing children bullied and teased by other children about their conditions. Chased with hard-boiled eggs. Threatened with peanut butter sandwiches.
In the other extreme, we see children excluded from social occasions by other parents, because catering for their needs is 'too hard'. We're supposedly more allergy alert than ever, but the social stigma remains. An allergic child is dismissed as a 'fussy eater'. An allergic child is making a choice to be difficult.
According to Dr Trupti Prasad, a paediatrician who trained at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, one of the other problems with food allergies is that they are complex.
"Someone can be allergic to eggs that are scrambled, but can tolerate eggs in baked goods. The way the food is prepared can be important, too. This can send conflicting messages to people who are already dubious about allergies, because this aspect isn't well understood."
Dr Prasad also explains that one of the risks with allergies, especially with children, is that adults often have an 'it's all too hard' approach, rather than being responsive to a particular allergy, and exclude too much - leading to serious nutritional deficiencies. An extreme case of this was recently experienced by an 11-year-old Canadian child who became temporarily blind due to being on an exclusion diet to treat his allergies.
Dr Prasad says that while it's tempting to address allergies at parties, and in restaurants, with an "I can't guarantee" attitude, a little effort put into understanding what is in the food being served goes a long way to making allergy sufferers feel welcome, less stigmatised - and safe enough to eat a variety of foods.
Do some people over play their 'intolerances'? The Mamamia Out Loud team discuss.
Of course, this information is too late for the people responsible for little Elijah at pre-school last week. But it's not too late for everyone else to inform themselves, and the children they know, about the basics of food allergies. An excellent source for further information is https://www.allergyfacts.org.au/.
As Elijah's parents face life without their baby, they are determined to help other children.
"While we can no longer protect Elijah, hold him in our arms, or kiss his sweet little face, we can still fight for kids like him. And that’s exactly what we intend to do."
It's what we should all intend to do, to prevent more lives being lost for such preventable reasons.