Kids With Food Allergies Often Harassed and Bullied

Fran Lowry September 29, 2010 — Kids who have food allergies are repeatedly bullied, teased, and harassed because of their allergies, and as a result are at increased risk for physical and emotional harm, concludes a new study, published in the October issue of the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Food allergy is increasingly common in children younger than 18 years and has increased 18% from 1997 to 2007. It is estimated that at this time, 3.9% of children in the United States have some kind of food allergy.

The physical effects of food-allergic reactions are well known, but less is known about the psychosocial effect of living with a food allergy, write Jay A. Lieberman, MD, from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City, and colleagues. "There are reports of children and teens with food allergy being harassed because of their food allergy, yet no study to date has attempted to characterize these occurrences."

By surveying food-allergic teenagers and the parents of food-allergic children who were attending regional Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network meetings, the authors sought to determine the presence and characteristics of bullying, teasing, or harassment of food-allergic patients because of their food allergies.

A total of 353 questionnaires were completed. Most were completed by parents of food-allergic individuals. Respondents were divided into 5 age groups: individuals younger than 4 years (25.9%), those aged 4 to 11 years (55%), those aged 12 to 18 years (12.5%), those aged 19 to 25 years (2.6%), and participants older than 25 years (4.0%).

Overall, 24% of respondents reported that the person with the food allergy had been bullied, teased, or harassed because of their food allergy. The vast majority (86%) reported that such episodes occurred multiple times.

The study also found that 82% of these episodes occurred at school — 80% of the episodes were perpetrated by classmates, and 21% were perpetrated by teachers or other school staff.

Nonphysical acts of bullying, teasing, or harassment were more common than physical acts. Verbal teasing or taunting was reported by 64.7% of participants, and physical events, including having the allergen thrown or waved at them, were reported by 57%. Twelve respondents reported that they had been touched by the allergen, and several reported that their food had been intentionally contaminated with the allergen.

No allergic reactions were reported as a result of the bullying, but emotional symptoms were common. A feeling of sadness or depression was reported by 65.7% and embarrassment or humiliation by 64.2% of the respondents. Close to half (42.3%) of the respondents also felt that the person with the food allergy would continue to be bullied, teased, or harassed in the future.

Because respondents were attending Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network regional meetings, the sample may be biased toward children who have more severe or troubling food allergies. Another potential limitation is the fact that parents filled out the surveys for their children, and this might have resulted in overreporting or underreporting of bullying episodes, the authors note.

Bullying, teasing, or harassment of food-allergic individuals is common — perhaps occurring at twice the rate noted in the general population — and perpetrators can also be adults, the authors conclude. "These actions pose a risk of psychological harm in all people, but unique to this population is that bullying, teasing, or harassment can also pose a direct physical threat when the allergen is involved," they write.

"Recent cases involving bullying and food allergy include a middle school student who found peanut butter cookie crumbs in her lunchbox and a high school student whose forehead was smeared with peanut butter in the cafeteria," coauthor Christopher Weiss, PhD, vice president, advocacy and government relations of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, noted in a statement.

"Bullying, whether physical or verbal is abusive behaviour that can have a tremendous impact on a child's emotional well-being," Dr. Weiss added. "Educators should develop anti-harassment policies related to food allergy. The public needs to understand this behaviour is unacceptable."

Dr. Weiss and Terence J. Furlong, MS, another study author, are current employees of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. A third author, Scott H. Sicherer, MD, serves on the medical advisory board for the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. The 2 other study authors (Dr. Lieberman and Mati Sicherer, MA) have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2010;105:267-271.

To see the original article, click here.

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