Illinois schools get green light to stock EpiPens

Under a state law that took effect last year, schools are allowed to stock and use prescription medicine that can save the lives of students with severe allergic reactions. But when school nurses asked doctors to prescribe the epinephrine shots, better known as EpiPens, many encountered a problem: Doctors, accustomed to writing prescriptions for individual patients, weren't sure how to prescribe an EpiPen to a school.

That barrier should now be gone. Attorney General Lisa Madigan, in a letter and information packet published Monday, told doctors and pharmacists how to prescribe and dispense EpiPens to schools without exposing themselves to liability.

It's a timely issue. Experts say up to 8 percent of children have some sort of food allergy, which works out to an average of about two per classroom. And while students with previously diagnosed allergies are expected to carry their own EpiPen or leave one with the nurse, others aren't aware of their condition until their first reaction. That's when having a backup EpiPen at the school can be lifesaving.

Katelyn Carlson, 13, died in 2010 when she had an allergic reaction to the Chinese food she ate at an after-school party. The seventh-grader at Edison Regional Gifted Center in Albany Park was allergic to peanuts, of which the Chinese food contained trace amounts. Even as she entered anaphylactic shock, school officials had little recourse beyond calling 911.

Today there would be more options. Under the new law, school nurses can inject an undiagnosed student with an EpiPen if they believe he is experiencing an anaphylactic reaction. Students with a food allergy diagnosis can carry their own EpiPens and have school officials inject them if they go into shock.

As Chicago Public Schools students return this fall, each building will be outfitted with EpiPens that a nurse can use even if a student doesn't have a previously diagnosed allergy. CPS purchased more than 3,700 EpiPens, said Dr. Stephanie Whyte, the district's chief health officer. Many suburban districts, including Oak Park schools, are also stocking the medication, providing reassurance to students and their parents.

"It is not an exaggeration to say every morning when you have a food-allergic child, 'How am I going to help my child get through the day safely?'" said Sheela Raja, whose daughter is starting kindergarten in Oak Park this fall and has a food allergy.

Knowing that her soon-to-be 6-year-old will have that backup and that school officials are aware of the severity of her daughter's allergies is "huge," Raja said.

Not every school district has secured EpiPens. Madigan and public health officials, speaking at a Monday news conference at the Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, said some schools are not aware of the new law or haven't found a doctor willing to write a prescription. Officials hope the new information for doctors will lead more districts to stock the medicine.

"It is very important for schools to have EpiPens available," Madigan said, because of the high number of students with food allergies and the fact that many children suffer their first allergic reaction in school.