Red bumps scale up your arm. Your lips start to swell, threatening to turn a terrifying shade of blue. Is that the world spinning or are you losing your balance? Your head is pounding and you feel your throat start to close. Your fingers fumble a bit as you inject your epi-pen. This feeling is an anaphylactic reaction, and about 250 million people suffer from these severe, life-threatening allergic reactions worldwide. When an allergic reaction commences, Western medicine and protocol calls for administration of epinephrine, colloquially known as an epi-pen. Coincidentally, food allergies are also the most prevalent in Western countries. So how do other countries around the world deal with food allergies, and should we be doing this too?
In Iceland, only 8% of the people have food allergies, making the country one of the least allergy-prone in the world. The same goes for Spain. What makes these countries so lucky? As it turns out, the environment plays a huge role in this situation. “[A]llergies and increased sensitivity to food are probably environmental, and related to Western lifestyles'' (Why the world is becoming more allergic to food, Santos). This article goes on to suggest that a lack of vitamin D may contribute to the prevalence in food allergies in Western countries because “vitamin D can help our immune system develop a healthy response.” Considering the fact that vitamin D deficiency in the US has nearly doubled in the past decade, this correlation does make sense.
Iceland’s organic and healthy lifestyle also contributes to its infrequency of food allergies. Iceland has relatively low levels of smoking, and a robust healthcare system and diet. The US on the other hand has 34.1 million smokers and 70% of the diet is processed. But before anyone can discuss the reasons why allergies even exist medicines to treat them must be available - and for everyone. Low-income schools, for example, do not always have access to life-saving medications to treat their students with severe allergic reactions. This is of the utmost importance, particularly since per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies “are responsible for approximately 30,000 emergency department visits … each year.”
Research also shows that families with lower socioeconomic statuses often lack the financial means to access allergen-free foods. In fact, allergen-free products “[are] on average 159% more expensive than the standard equivalents” (The Availability and Nutritional Adequacy of Gluten-Free Bread and Pasta, Orfila, Allen).
Allergies are no fun. But because food allergies often require more expensive foods and access to medication like epinephrine, they reveal social inequality. They also highlight a concrete way in which the US falls behind its neighbors.