Friday, October 21, 2011

To get a flu shot, or not

Well, we tried. I took Joseph to his allergist yesterday morning to get a scratch test for the flu vaccine and possibly the flu shot for the first time in his 8 years of life. My chest has been tight with worry and I've been quicker to snap at family members since I made the appointment a week ago. I was concerned about the possibility of Joseph having a life-threatening reaction if he received the vaccine, yet also worried about yet another stressful flu season for my asthmatic son if he couldn't receive the vaccine's protection.

When talk of the flu begins each season, I can feel the anxiety building. I had never considered getting a flu vaccine for Joseph because he is allergic to egg, along with peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk and soy. Of course, as an asthmatic he unfortunately also is in the high-risk group for complications from the flu. My husband, 3-year-old daughter and I each receive the flu vaccine to try to provide some protection for him each year. But for the past few years, both children have had rough winters with the flu and other respiratory viruses.

This year's venture into the land of flu shots was based on the latest recommendation from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) that many people with egg allergy could safely receive the seasonal vaccine. I read the recommendation and many people's stories about successfully getting the flu shot even with an egg allergy. But, with all we do to ensure Joseph avoids all of the allergens that threaten his life, it freaked me out to think about letting something that contains egg be injected into his body. So, after his allergist suggested we try it out with certain precautions, I turned to my local support group NC FACES (Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely) for a bit more advice. As always, they delivered. It was because of their tips and support that I was able to walk into that office yesterday, knowing that it could be a rough visit either way.

The plan was that if Joseph didn't react to the scratch test, he would get 10 percent of the vaccine and then the other 90 percent if he didn't react from the first part of the dose, as recommended by the CDC. Because he hadn't had his food allergies tested in more than a year, the nurse did a scratch test for several foods and the flu vaccine. As Joseph lay on his stomach, playing his Nintendo DSi, I watched the hives develop. This is nothing new for us. I'm used to watching big hives grow on Joseph's back during allergy testing. He's used to it, too, and never complains about how bad his back itches during the 15 minutes the allergens are creating an itchy design on his back. But this time, I was looking for a specific result to see if he could receive the vaccine.

The flu vaccine spot wasn't a huge hive like the spot with egg and the other spots with Joseph's known allergens, but it also wasn't a completely negative reaction. Joseph's doctor decided that the flu vaccine would be too risky in light of the scratch test results.

Joseph smiled and jumped off of the exam table, ready to head to the lab for his blood work. He was happy not to get the flu shot. He wasn't worried about the needle since he receives regular immunotherapy shots for his environmental allergies, but he, too, had been a bit worried about how his body would react to the vaccine. I was partly relieved about not dealing with a potential reaction. But the tightness in my chest did not go away as quickly as I had expected after the appointment. After all, my asthmatic son is still facing a long flu season. 

But both of my kids are healthy right now and they are excited about the fun things going on in their lives. Joseph played a great tennis match tonight and both kids can't wait to put on their costumes tomorrow to attend a fun Halloween party hosted by NC FACES. My Harry Potter and fairy princess will get to parade through the park, make a craft and trick-or-treat for food-free prizes. I plan to enjoy an event that is safe for my food-allergic child, while that anxiety in my chest dissipates even more.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Event is more than a walk in the park

My family and I will soon be taking steps toward finding a cure for food allergies. On Nov. 5, we will be lacing up our walking shoes so that one day my 8-year-old son Joseph and an estimated 15 million Americans, including about 6 million other children like him, might be able to live a life free from the danger of dying from the ingestion of one speck of food. The morning we spend taking a pleasant fall walk with our team Nuttin' We Can't Overcome will contribute to research that could find a way to protect my son from an anaphylactic reaction. Currently, the only protection is avoidance of seemingly ubiquitous allergens and, should a reaction occur, a lifesaving epinephrine auto-injector.

The money raised during the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) Walk for Food Allergy will be used to fund education, advocacy, research and awareness efforts. We are lucky to live in an area where some of the groundbreaking research is happening. Joseph and I recently had the privilege of attending a talk by Wesley Burks, MD, Kiser-Arena professor of pediatrics and chief of the Division of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at Duke University Medical Center. Joseph was excited to attend a grownup presentation by a leading food allergy scientist.

Burks outlined the research scientists are exploring, such as oral immunotherapy, sublingual immunotherapy and the Chinese herbs FAHF-2. Joseph, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy, conscientiously wrote down some of the scientific words with a note to "look up later." But while he didn't understand all of the scientific terms, he did understand that there are several intelligent scientists working hard to help make his world safer.

The statistic that stuck with Joseph the most after the presentation at Duke was the fact that there has been an 18 percent increase in the prevalence of children with food allergies from 1997 to 2007 (Branum, 2009 Pediatrics). He said, "Wow, that's a lot more people like me." Food-allergic kids like Joseph latch on to those kinds of statistics because they so often feel isolated and find comfort knowing that there are other people like them. It helps for Joseph to see proof that he is not the only kid who can't eat at a pizzeria, sample Halloween candy while trick-or-treating or taste a free cookie from the bakery. When we participate in the FAAN Walk for Food Allergy, Joseph gets to see that proof by the hundreds.

Joseph gets to be part of a fun event with other kids, who have food allergies, just like him. He gets to experience the camaraderie of a group of wonderful kids, who just happen to have food allergies. Those kids get to feel special while hundreds of people clap for them, knowing that everyone is there to support them. I'm thankful for the wonderful members of our local support group NC FACES (Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely), who make this event a success. Our family is excited to walk because we know we are contributing to something that could help our son and millions more, and we are thrilled to help give him the special kind of comfort and joy the walk gives him on that day.

After 31 of 43 walks throughout the United States, the FAAN Walk for Food Allergy is more than halfway to its fundraising goal of $3 million. I am proud to be a small part of this effort. Will you be participating in your city? What part of the walk is most special to you?