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That Amazing Human Animal

I’m not sure why I find popular medical news so interesting. I think in part it’s a fascination with the unlimited potential of amazingly vigorous human animal. We just don’t want to let anything go. We seem to have a biological imperative to keep chipping away at everything that discomforts us, from panty liners to life-threatening allergies.
This article in the Chronicle caught my attention. Neither of my children has life-threatening allergies, but I have known some kids who did and it is truly a frightening experience for families. I have run into at least a couple of families who homeschool because they are so afraid that their children will die because others don’t take their allergies seriously.
I think the likelihood that adults don’t take allergies seriously is probably compounded by the fact that these days, there’s someone who says they are allergic to pretty much anything. “Allergic” and “sensitive” have become interchangeable for a lot of people who blame everything from their weight to their depression on food allergies or sensitivities. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when an idea gets popularized, so I think some people just decide that everyone is exaggerating.
Within this trend is a serious one that parents are facing: more kids who would have died in previous generations are being diagnosed, and their parents are left with the awesome responsibility of keeping their kids away from foods that other people eat on a regular basis, and from adults who don’t take the child’s allergy seriously. I was once told by a teacher that a student’s allergy “probably isn’t real — her parents are just overreacting.” Then I talked to her mother: in fact, she had been tested and she truly was seriously allergic. It shocked me that a teacher could be so cavalier about a child’s health, but this particular teacher was convinced that she knew better.
Allergies are fascinating. Your body decides that something is an invader, and tries to attack it, to the point that it will kill itself trying. Some allergies seem to develop from exposure, like when a body’s responses to bee stings can get stronger with each sting. Others seem to come from lack of exposure, such as kids who don’t grow up around animals and develop severe dander allergies.
The article cited above, however, shows a glimmer of hope. The children in the study were given ever-increasing, tiny doses of the thing that their body fears, and it seems like their bodies actually can get used to it. Perhaps it’s similar to how many adults seem to lose their childhood allergies to animals, or at least they become less severe over time.
Now why is it that the yearly dose of pollen that causes my eyes to itch and burn isn’t making those allergies go away? Hm. Gotta have a talk with my immune system about that.
One of the frustrating things about medical research is the whole ethical question of doing things to kids to find out what will happen. Of course, the minute amounts of peanut flour were given to these kids in a medical setting, and the doctors had a strong suspicion that it would help them. But still, I have great respect for parents who would take part in an experiment like this.
When our son first started being out in the world without us, either at preschool or with a babysitter, we often joked about “keeping him in a padded cell so nothing bad can happen.” But of course, the padded cell is in itself something bad. But it illustrates the conflicting feelings a parent has, knowing that at some point your child is going to get scars — physical or psychological.
But we are programmed with this amazing biological imperative to get out there, do things, try things out. I still wonder at the first person who tried to eat an artichoke. We owe him or her a great culinary debt. An even greater debt is owed to those parents who allow their sick children to be exposed to potential danger so that others might get better.
ps: I read an article that says that they’re developing a hypo-allergenic peanut. Unfortunately, the same article cited the urban legend that a peanut-allergic girl died after kissing her boyfriend, who had just had a peanut butter sandwich. Shoddy reporting is the ruin of too many popular medicine articles!

Posted in Parenting.

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