A class act
Calling for increased allergy awareness in schools
Jenna Laing-Phillips and her family’s lives have changed since discovering her now-9-year-old son Stanley’s life-threatening allergies. These include all nuts, egg, dust mite, some grasses and apples. Stanley is considered allergic to even minute traces of his allergens.
He has experienced allergic reactions from age 3, which present themselves with symptoms such as severe swelling, itching, hives, swollen lips, coughing, feeling of doom and panic, and is at risk of anaphylaxis. At times he has been so swollen that his eyes were completely closed, and his head was twice its normal size.
The family has had to undertake several changes to their lifestyle in order to protect Stanley from his allergens: spontaneity is not possible, everything requires extensive planning, research and educating others. From eating outside the home, to social activities, to traveling, continuous vigilance and awareness is needed by those who love and care for Stanley.
“All normal day-to-day activities are affected, we cannot go anywhere or even just ‘pop out’ without carrying his medicines. For example, just running general errands in a supermarket we must ensure we have his adrenaline pens in case of contact with nuts in the building, on the shelves etc.” Jenna explains.
But the most problematic issue Stanley and his family have encountered has been a lack of societal awareness on allergies and anaphylaxis, which they believe should start in schools and then trickle down.
“Allergy-aware children in school grow to be AWARE adults and enter the workplace more considerate and mindful of those needs, allergic signs and symptoms, and how to administer life-saving medications. It must become a crucial part of the safeguarding procedure in school. The awareness would naturally filter throughout different stages of schools and therefore whole community awareness would be greater,” says Jenna.
School should be the safest place for a child, and staff should strictly commit to following a child’s health care plan to ensure proper care.
They should also ensure they are fully trained in epi pen administration and allergy awareness, developing a proactive whole school awareness programme. But this was sadly not the case for Stanley, who was seriously disadvantaged as a result of failed allergy education and awareness in his particular school.
“It is vital that teachers and all staff are allergy aware but currently there are huge gaps and no effective or collaborative system to check any such procedure or process for implementation or effectiveness”.
Due to his medical condition being trivialised, ignored and treated with no priority (including severe incidents such as staff losing his life-saving Epi Pens), Stanley was out of school for 11 months, distanced from his friends and denied a safe education.
“He was made to feel a burden, he did not feel safe, and by the time he left he was very distressed about his condition and safety. He put his trust in those adults to understand his allergies, and the realisation that they were not looking after him created overwhelming anxiety. Losing trust in an adult is very damaging for any child. Any child with a medical condition with potentially life-threatening consequences needs to know and feel the security that all will be okay. The confidence to live freely and not worry relies on the knowledge that those responsible actually care, are educated and have your best interests at heart”.
Jenna says it is left up to the parents alone to educate staff with allergy information, provide separate bags of medicines for schools to have at hand, request risk assessments for trips, checking staff are trained in emergency epi pen use, and examining lunch situations, among other procedures. This help is essential but too often resented, leaving parents being treated detrimentally.
“Everybody in the care of an allergic child needs to take responsibility and educate themselves to go above and beyond to ensure the individual requirements of that child are known and met by ALL those in contact with them. School allergy care requires so much planning and preparing. We have to make sure the school take allergies seriously (which some currently don’t) and check procedures are in place. We have to ask so many important questions and check everything. I urge parents to check and ask in-depth questions about the allergic care in their school as too often this is where we realise the school has little to no knowledge of how to recognise allergic symptoms nor how to deal with an emergency. We expect, need and deserve transparency in order to gain a real perspective on whether the school is fit to cater for our child’s allergies. Allergic conditions affect every part of school life, and only with the correct care it is manageable and can be almost anxiety-free. The alternative; a lack of care, lack of stringent measures and no steps to the minimisation of risk can and has had devastating consequences for families,” Jenna explains.
For the past year, Stanley’s family’s only focus has been to build him back up and reassure him. The support from family and friends has been crucial in recovering from the trauma induced by school.
“I hope our story helps to create awareness and give an insight into life with allergy. We need urgent change and I will continue to work hard to get this, so children can be safe and free from the anxiety and burden as much as possible. Medical professionals and allergist paediatricians should understand more about the true effect on families daily lives and be willing to openly support parents when interacting with schools and other institutions in advocating allergen safe environments,” says Jenna.