EpiPen, a life-saver for children with allergies.

EpiPen, a life-saver for children with allergies (May 9, 2014)

Gina Mennett Lee can see why some parents don't understand the dire consequences of food allergies because they haven't witnessed what she has. "When Jillienne was eight months old, I was nursing her and eating a bowl of cereal at the same time and I looked down and her body was covered head to toe in red blotches," says the Branford mom. Her daughter was diagnosed with a milk allergy and went on to experience a near-fatal reaction after eating shrimp as a toddler: "Her face was one and a half times it's normal size, she was red…her tongue was so swollen it was hanging outside of her mouth." Now, during Food Allergy Awareness Week, Lee is urging everyone to learn to use an EpiPen, a life-saver when her child was experiencing anaphylaxis.

"That's when I realized there is a point of no return and it's just fractions of seconds," says Lee, holding an EpiPen trainer, which allows people to try-out the slim device without actually administering the drug. "The orange part goes into the side of the thigh and you hold for ten seconds." A new epinephrine injector, the Auvi-Q, features a recorded voice, like an AED, used for sudden cardiac arrest. "Usually it's a panic situation, so this is calming to people," says Lee, founder of The Food Allergy Education Network, which includes 100 families and professionals. She is stepping down as president of the non-profit to be a private consultant regarding food allergies, offering expert testimony in court and aid in establishing protocols in schools.

Food allergies in kids increased 18 percent from 1997-2007. Referencing new voluntary guidelines from the CDC for managing food allergies in school (www.cdc.gov), Lee, a former teacher, believes there should be "no unnecessary food in the classroom", such as sweets for celebrations. "The children are fine with it. They've grown up with food allergies, so it's a reality to them," she says, noting research in Massachusetts that shows 45% of food-related allergic reactions requiring epinephrine at school occur in the classroom, not the cafeteria, possibly due to cross-contact and sharing of snacks. "I think the children are really looking for time, they're looking for attention. I think that's the best reward you can give them…not sugar and candy." A bill just passed through the legislature, requiring schools to keep epinephrine in stock, for anyone who is having a dangerous reaction.

Jillienne, now 9, is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame and shellfish, as well as milk. Lee is sharing her frightening experiences to raise awareness: "The more educated the community is, the safer those children are."

To learn more about Food Allergy Awareness Week, tune into Monday's Fox CT Morning News.