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For millions of Americans, food allergies can be deadly. Yet, knowledge of how to prevent them remains scarce. CBS 2’s Healthwatch reporter Paul Moniz has the findings of a new study examining deaths related to food allergies.

The study examined the deaths of more than 30 people who died from allergies ranging from milk and fish to all kinds of nuts. What may be surprising is that nearly all of the victims knew they were allergic and were actively trying to avoid the foods that caused their deaths. But they were misled as to what was in the foods that they had eaten.

Christine Weaver and her husband Bob are mourning the death of their 21 year old daughter Sarah. She died after eating a cookie with undetectable crushed nuts at a wedding. Her parents say that she knew that she was allergic to nuts and tried to steer clear. But Sarah was given wrong information by a banquet worker, who when asked, assured Sarah that the cookies being served did not contain nuts.

Sarah died of Anaphylaxis, an acute allergic reaction to food that affects about 30,000 people a year and kills 150. "The reaction typically leads to hives and swelling of the skin, difficulty breathing, closing of the throat, stomach cramps and vomiting, changes in blood pressure and eventually loss of consciousness" says Dr. Hugh Sampson of Mount Sinai Medical School

Dr. Sampson recently conducted a study of 32 anaphylaxis deaths including Sarah’s. He found some common links: "Those at high risk for anaphylaxis include adolescent and young adults who often eat outside of the home; those allergic to peanuts and tree nuts including walnuts; asthmatics, even those with mild cases; and people prone to food allergies who don’t have access to epinephrine, the only drug know to reverse the symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction,"

The epinephrine is injected directly into the blood stream by a device called an Epi-pen. What is crucial is that the Epi-pen be administered right away, within 2 to 5 minutes. Alarmingly, only 11 states allow all levels of emergency medical technicians to carry the drug. In Sarah’s case, the first emergency rescue vehicle to show up didn’t have it.

Another problem is the lack of training in the food service industry. In one death studied, the victim died from cross contamination when a worker making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich failed to clean the knife properly before preparing the victim’s order. One in four deaths is caused by improper or confusing labeling of packaged foods.

Those conducting the study are calling on manufacturers and the FDA to do more. Anne Munoz — Forlong from the Food Allergy Network says, "ingredients should be in simple language so even a seven year old can understand the information."

Because nut allergies pose the greatest risk and the accuracy of the label can’t be guaranteed, Dr. Sampson says that young children with a knowallergy, should avoid all nuts, not only the ones they are allergic to, "because you get into issues of being able to identify which nut is in a candy or baked good and sometimes there are substitutes."

The best way to protect yourself is by asking detailed questions about what is in your food and when in doubt don’t eat it. Also if you have severe food allergies you should carry your own supply of epinephrine.

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