If your life puts you in the company of school-aged kids, you know how stressful the issue of child food allergies has become, not just for families immediately affected by them. But new information out this week says the problem has become so intense it's affecting parental income -- and even job choices.
A JAMA Pediatrics report on 1,643 families with food-allergic children found that allergies are costing America "an estimated $25 billion per year, or about $4,184 per child" for expenses like medication, doctor visits and special food. But one the most surprising reveals of the study was the toll of economic opportunities – a whopping $14.2 billion a year. Ruchi Gupta, a Chicago pediatrician who led the study, told Businessweek, "Food allergies are challenging for families and do impact their career choices. Parents need to be able to respond immediately, so they may not want jobs that require traveling. They may need to be at the school during meal times or for field trips and class parties." Six percent of the parents surveyed said they'd been "restricted" in their job opportunities because of caring for a child with allergies.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that childhood food allergies has risen a dramatic 50% since the late 1990s. One in eight children has a food related skin allergy. And while many theories about the rapid spike – from modern "excessive cleanliness" to "decreased biodiversity," there are no clear explanations. As John Lehr, CEO of Food Allergy Research & Education, asked the Sacramento Bee last month, "Why are people dying, and what can we do to prevent it?"
What's especially alarming about the JAMA findings is that with food allergies so sharply on the rise, the economic impact is only going to grow more intense. Sure, researchers are working on possible cures for allergies, as well as lower-cost treatments, but for now, the main burden of keeping children well comes down to old fashioned vigilance – and vigilance comes with a high price tag, for everybody. The epidemic of allergies affects productivity in the workplace; it determines what kinds of meals are available to all schoolchildren; it influences where doctors and drug companies are throwing their resources. As the study's authors say, "Childhood food allergy in the United States places a considerable economic burden on families and society." A burden that's getting bigger every day.