When his son was two years old, Rep. Phil Lovas, R-Peoria, and his wife, Corrine, watched in horror when he began to itch, his eyes became watery and his face began to “blow up” after eating peanut butter.
The couple knew their son, now 7, had severe allergic reaction to nuts. They gave him Benadryl that day.
But his son’s woes worsened over the years, and they have had to bring him to the hospital twice.
They’ve also have to give him epinephrine, an emergency medication that is used to treat life-threatening allergic reactions.
Allergic reaction to food is becoming more common among children. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that between 4 and 6 percent of children under age 18 have food allergies.
The problem is even more palpable at schools, where up to 18 percent of children who suffer from food allergies have experienced allergic reactions after accidentally ingesting allergens.
Now a group of lawmakers, including Lovas, want schools to stock auto-injectable epinephrine medication.
Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, the bill’s primary sponsor, said the medication is not so much for children who know they have severe allergic reaction. Rather, it’s aimed at kids that may not know their condition and accidentally ingest allergens.
Lopez has good reason to worry.
According to the CDC, 25 percent of food-induced anaphylaxis reactions at school happen to kids who have no history of food allergy diagnoses. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction that often develops within seconds or minutes and whose symptoms include chest tightness and difficulty of breathing.
It is during this early stage of the reaction when epinephrine becomes handy, and potentially life-saving.
“Think of it as having a defibrillator in the hallways. You don’t know if you’ll need it, but when you do, you need it right away,” said Dr. Peggy Stemmler, a pediatrician who also attested that the medication is safe, even when administered to a student who has no allergies.
What’s important is to have the medication available and ready to be immediately delivered, Stemmler told members of the Senate Education Committee, which unanimously approved the legislation.
The bill, SB1421, was amended to make it more permissive rather than mandatory.
As originally drafted, it required districts and charter schools to stock four auto-injectable doses of epinephrine beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. It would also have required school districts to come up with policies on administering the medication.
Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, amended the measure to say schools may – instead of shall — stock the medication if sufficient funds aren’t set aside by the state to buy them.
Lopez estimated that the medication would cost $200 per school or roughly $300,000 a year.
But for Lopez and other supporters, the program’s potential to save children’s lives far outweighs its costs and other risks, such as administering it to a non-allergic child.
But while the vote was unanimous, Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, urged caution during the hearing. He said he’s wary about adding another responsibility to schools, saying they already have a lot on their plate.
He was also cautious about the program’s costs and about potential liability issues.
Additionally, he is wary that the legislation might just be the start of an expansive – and expensive – program.
He wondered if the legislation leads to questions about whether school buses, and not just campuses, should stock the medication.
Lopez said the legislation ensures civil immunity, except in cases of wanton or willful neglect, to schools and their employees. As for questions about expanding the program and its costs, Mitzi Epstein, the legislative issues chair of the Arizona PTA, replied, “Let’s first take care of what we can.”