June 21, 2018
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When food can kill: Costs of food allergies hit home for Westbrook teen

Jackie Farwell | BDN
Jackie Farwell | BDN
Kai McGee, 15, sits in his Westbrook home with his mother, Gloria Caricchio on Oct. 3, 2013. McGee, who has a severe milk allergy, must avoid many foods and substitute with soy milk and soy ice cream, or risk a dangerous immune reaction.
By Jackie Farwell, BDN Staff

Gloria Caricchio of Westbrook remembers finally receiving a diagnosis for her son’s health problems 18 months after he was born. Her little boy’s immune system was in overdrive, mistakenly targeting harmless foods as a threat, triggering an allergic reaction and flooding his body with histamines.

At one point in his childhood, Kai McGee was allergic to milk, soy, eggs, pork and beef. Caricchio spent $1,200 a month on special formula for her son.

“It was really difficult to say the least,” she said. “It was just astronomical costs.”

According to a new national study, child food allergies cost Americans nearly $25 billion a year. Described in the Los Angeles Times as the “first survey to come up with a comprehensive price tag for a condition that affects 8 percent of American kids,” the study surveyed 1,643 parents across the U.S. with at least one child with a food allergy.

Doctor’s appointments, hospital and emergency room visits, and other medical expenses accounted for $4.3 billion of the total price tag. Expenses related to buying special allergen-free foods and placing children in allergy-sensitive schools and child-care facilities totaled $5.5 billion.

The single largest cost, $14 billion, was the earning power parents sacrificed by staying out of the workforce or restricting their careers to accommodate their children’s health needs. Parents also cited lost productivity from taking their children to medical appointments.

Altogether, the expenses totaled $24.8 billion a year, or $4,184 annually per child, researchers found. The study was led by Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a pediatrician at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and a professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

McGee grew out of most of his food allergies, but today, at age 15, he remains highly allergic to milk. Just a tiny amount — even touching a surface contaminated with milk and then touching his mouth — can lead to anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially deadly reaction.

“It’s just horrifying to look at,” Caricchio said. “He gets hives from head to toe, he turns bright red, like a cooked lobster if not brighter.”

Within seconds, McGee’s throat begins to close up, and he often experiences cramping and vomiting. To thwart the reaction, his mother must jab an injector of epinephrine into his leg, followed by a visit to the emergency room.

“It’s been a struggle,” McGee said, sitting with his mother in their backyard. “I have to be sure when I’m out I can’t be touching anything and I have to keep my hands clean. I’ve been sort of isolated from cafeterias, parties and things sometimes because I don’t want to be taking a risk that there’s going to be pizza, ice cream, whatever floating around.”

At school, he has experienced a few “accidents,” as he calls them, that would lead to him being rushed to the hospital. Adults and other students don’t always understand the severity of his condition, he said, confusing it with lactose intolerance, a condition involving the digestive rather than immune system. Some kids have waved foods he’s allergic to in his face, McGee said.

“A little small thing can put me in the hospital for a long time,” he said. “It’s definitely stressful.”

Along with the obvious culprits, dairy foods, McGee also must avoid any product containing milk proteins, which turn up in everything from lunch meats to artificial flavorings and medications.

He once suffered a reaction at a birthday party from face paint containing milk proteins.

“These are things you just don’t even think you’d have to worry about,” his mother said.

McGee has grown more accepting of his allergy over the years, he said. One silver lining is that he knows much more about what’s in his food than most other kids his age.

“I haven’t had McDonald’s in over eight years, and I’m proud of it,” he said.

Caricchio hopes that immunotherapy, or allergy shots, might one day help her son, but he’ll likely deal with the condition all his life, she said. As a mom, she’d give anything to free him of it, she said.

The financial costs pale in comparison to not only the daily inconveniences of a severe food allergy, but also the psychological toll of fearing the next life-threatening reaction could strike at any moment, Caricchio said.

“If someone said, ‘Cut your left arm off to cure him,’ I would,” she said, looking at her son across the table.

McGee shook his head at his mother, cracking a smile.

“I’d rather you have your arm,” he said.

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