Regular readers know that I use my own education, experience, and professional opinion to write my posts. But, I have to say, Nicholas Christakis MD PhD and James H. Fowler PhD eloquently explain why we go nuts over peanut allergies in their book, Connected. I couldn’t have said it better myself so I’m sharing it with my comments below:
The number of schools declaring themselves to be entirely “nut free” is by all accounts rising. Nuts and staples like peanut butter are prohibited from campus, and so are homemade baked goods and any foods without detailed ingredient labels. School entrances have signs admonishing visitors to wash their hands before entering to safeguard students from possible contamination.
Approximately 3.3 million Americans are allergic to nuts, and even more, 6.9 million, are allergic to seafood. However, all told, serious allergic reactions to foods cause just two thousand hospitalizations per year (out of more than thirty million hospitalizations nation-wide). And, at most, only 150 people (both children and adults) die each year from food allergies. Compare that to the fifty people who die each year from bee stings, the hundred who die from lightning strikes, and the forty-five thousand who die from motor vehicle accidents. Or compare that to the ten thousand children who are hospitalized each year for traumatic brain injuries acquired during sports, or the two thousand who drown, or the roughly thirteen hundred who die from gun accidents. Yet there are no calls to end athletics. There are likely thousands of parents who rid their cupboards of peanut butter but not guns. And more children assuredly die walking or being driven to school each year than die of nut allergies.
The question is not whether nut allergies exist, or whether they can occasionally be serious, or whether reasonable accommodations should be made for the few children who have documented serious allergies. The question is, what accounts for society’s extreme response to nut allergies? Not surprisingly, the response bears many of the hallmarks of MPI [mass psychogenic illness]. A few people have clinically documented concerns, but others who do not then copy the behaviors of those who do. Anxiety spreads from person to person to person, and a sense of proportion and the ability to be reassured are lost.
Well-intentioned efforts to reduce nut exposure actually fan the flames since they indicate to parents that nuts are a clear and present danger. This encourages more parents to worry, which fuels the epidemic. It also encourages more parents to have their kids tested, thus detecting mild and meaningless allergies to nuts. And, finally, this encourages still more avoidance of nuts, which may actually lead to a rise in true nut allergies because lack of exposure to allergens early in life is thought to contribute to the onset of allergies later.
Mass psychogenic illness or MPI is based in fear and anxiety. Anxiety is contagious and when enough people are affected (or infected), they find themselves caught up in a collective buzz. For this reason, the peanut allergy phenomenon has gotten a disproportionate amount of attention.
That isn’t to say awareness of peanut allergies is a bad thing. I’m simply suggesting that we be more aware of what is hype-worthy based on the numbers and that we each investigate the motivation for emerging health trends. Are they steeped in emotion or based on comparative data? We are all susceptible to anxiety and sometimes it is hard to tell (especially when the news media makes a HUGE deal out of it). Be thoughtful about what gets your concern because it might be more useful if directed elsewhere.
Fun Fact: Gail is allergic to peanuts (among other things).