June 6, 2014
Lena Jackson had her first allergic reaction to food on her first birthday. "We gave her the celebratory first big piece of cake and seconds after eating it she broke out in hives from head to toe," said Lena's mother, Kelly Jackson. "Immediately we knew something was wrong."
The Jacksons quickly found out their daughter had severe allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, and sesame. Their family's experience mirrors what medical professionals are seeing across the country. According to the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the number of children with a peanut allergy tripled between 1997 and 2010 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 4-6% of U.S. children have a food allergy.
"Roughly one in every classroom will have some type of food allergy," said Dr. Scott Commins, a professor at the University of Virginia working in the Allergy and Clinical Immunology Department at the UVa Medical Center. "It's largely a global phenomenon where we have seen increases in allergic sensitizations to food."
As a six-year-old, Lena Jackson carries an epinephrine auto-injector, also known as an EpiPen, at all times, in case she comes into contact with food and has a severe reaction. For the Jackson family, Lena's allergies have shifted their entire lifestyle. Trips on airplanes are nearly impossible and going out to eat is a constant challenge.
"Every parent worries about their child," said Kelly. "Being a parent of a child with food allergies, we just have to take extra precaution with everything we can do."
The Jacksons own the Panera Bread franchise in the Barracks Road Shopping Center and say their personal struggle has made them more conscious as business owners.
"For us it's obviously personally important, and as local business owners we feel a responsibility to do everything we can to be accommodating of those with food allergies and make it a welcome and safe place," said Adam Jackson, Lena's father.
Along with making their restaurant more food-allergy friendly, the Jacksons are hoping to raise money for pediatric food allergy research at UVa. This Saturday they will be holding the first annual Kids Craft for a Cause at the Panera Bread. Twenty kids, including Lena, have signed up to bring crafts to sell at the event that runs from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm. All of the money raised will go to UVa and pediatric food allergy research.
Dr. Commins has spent the past several years working on research focusing on kids with peanut allergies. In a current study group, kids with peanut allergies are given a daily dose of peanut powder. Commins says the goal is to alleviate the allergic reaction the kids typically have.
"It's promising therapy, but there are still issues and side effects and challenges to work out," Commins said. "The next step is to try to transition this therapy from a large dose which we have currently been doing, that does have side effects, to a smaller dose that can be placed under the tongue and even start it at an earlier age so that we can reach these children at age two or three in hopes of preventing any reactions as they get older."
The Jacksons say their goal is to raise $25,000 for the research program.