Noah is a success story, but most allergic kids live like Jimmy Francis. The Dallas 5-year-old cannot tolerate even the smallest trace of eggs or nuts. His mom, Kathryn, studies food labels like her son's life depends on it--because it truly might. "When we go to birthday parties, I bring lollipops," she says, because Jimmy can't have the cake or ice cream. He and his family have learned to cope, but the threat of anaphylaxis--Jimmy going into shock and his airway closing off--remains an undercurrent in their otherwise ordinary lives.
Yet Francis and other allergy-anxious parents see signs that, one day soon, more kids will join the ranks of Noah: able to eat, play, and walk through the school cafeteria without the cloud of their disease hanging over them. The research in recent years has exploded. Never in the history of the field has so much progress been made toward understanding the causes of food allergies, and developing treatments. "The scientific revolution is giving us abilities we never dreamed of," says Andrew Saxon, M.D., head of the allergy division at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. Take a look at what's changed--and what the future may hold:
THEN: Food allergies were virtually off the cultural radar. In fact, the issue was so publicly ignored that some emergency medical technicians weren't always equipped to handle a reaction, according to Chris Weiss, Ph.D., vice president of advocacy for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. "Ten years ago, there was a chance that if you called 911, the EMTs would either not have epinephrine on hand to administer or have it and not be able to use it," he says. Allergic kids even tried to "forget" their problem. "They would actually get teased," says Dr. Saxon. "They were different. So they wouldn't talk about their allergies, which, of course, put them at higher risk."
NOW: We are allergy savvy--and accepting. Since 2001, more than 40 states have passed laws requiring EMTs to always carry epinephrine. Most states now allow children to carry their own EpiPens to school, as well. And while allergic kids may realize they are different, it's no longer holding them back. A recent study found that children with food allergies don't feel any higher levels of social stress than their non-allergic peers. These days, the issue also takes center stage in schools, among policy makers, and in the media. Food allergies even appear in movies and TV shows. "There's an acceptance of this as a real disease," says Dr. Saxon.