Reporting of peanut allergies fails to tell of prevention efforts

The popular media seems to have an insatiable appetite for the sensational, taking what already is a tragic circumstance and magnifying it several times over with headlines and story leads designed to terrify and attract the reader. A good example of this has been the recent news stories concerning peanut allergies.

One of these stories occurred this past November, when a 15-year-old Canadian girl with a peanut allergy died after kissing her boyfriend, who had just eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The basic facts are tragic enough without any further alliteration. But most news outlets didn't stop with “just the facts.” People magazine did a large spread on the story, complete with photos of the girl. And one story in a U.S. newspaper actually led with, “It was the kiss of death.”

The teenager, Christina Desforges, reportedly went into anaphylactic shock after the kiss. She was almost immediately given a shot of adrenaline, but it was too late to save her life.

In another story, with a headline that screamed, “Seven-year-old attacked with peanut butter cracker,” a child with an extreme allergy to peanut butter was hospitalized for two days after she was allegedly attacked on a St. Louis school bus by a boy with a peanut butter cracker, according to the news report. The child, Arionna Lunceford, said a boy was harassing her on the school bus about her allergy to peanut butter and then shoved a peanut butter cracker in her face, dropping pieces of it on her head.

It's not that these stories aren't important, and it's not that they're insignificant — far from it. This is a life and death issue. But by reporting only on the tragedies and not on the work being done to prevent future such incidents, the media isn't doing its job. And to sensationalize these stories only compounds the grief of the families involved.

You might get the idea from reading recent news reports that the stories end with the tragedies — that the problem is becoming worse, or at least that people are taking more notice of the problem and nothing much is being done to prevent future peanut allergy situations from occurring.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Since the National Peanut Board's inception in 2000, it has committed more than $3.5 million in food allergy research and education to help prevent food allergy tragedies. With the news of recent fatalities, its commitment to that effort has been strengthened.

Many news stories covering these allergy fatalities cite inaccurate statistics in the media, and the National Peanut Board (NPB) has worked diligently to correct these inaccuracies and to provide the media with the correct information so they won't make the same mistake twice. The NPB Issues Management team works to correct misinformation in the media and to help move food allergy stories in the media toward education and prevention and away from fear and sensationalism by, among other things, making its Scientific Advisory Council (SAC) members available for comment

As a form of educating the media, as well as schools considering peanut bans, the NPB always sends the allergy fact sheet entitled, “What We Know, Don't Know, and What Isn't So About Food Allergies.” This document is a comprehensive compilation of all facts supported by scientific research about food allergy. The National Peanut Board developed the document with its Scientific Advisory Council members, leaders in food allergy research from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) also provides critical input. The hope is that the media will refer to the document to ensure accuracy in whenever writing or broadcasting food allergy stories in the future.

Whenever someone encounters a problem with a peanut food allergy, it's important to remember — and to remind the public — that the peanut industry, backed by grower dollars, always has been proactive on the issue.

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