How Malia Obama’s Peanut Allergy Could Save Lives

Health and medicine explained.
Nov. 14 2013 11:51 AM

The Patron Saint of Peanut Allergies

Malia Obama, could you have a word with your dad?

President Obama walks with daughter Malia on October 27, 2013 in Washington, DC.
President Obama walks with daughter Malia, who has a bedeviling immune system malfunction that plagues millions worldwide.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama signed a bill this week that encourages schools to be prepared to administer life-saving doses of epinephrine to students in the throes of severe allergic reactions. In this case, the personal was political for the first family. As Obama revealed at the signing ceremony, his older daughter suffers from a peanut allergy. So do I. Malia, if you’re reading this, kindly deliver this message to your dad: Please seize this opportunity to make the peanut allergy your new archenemy.

“Some people may know that Malia actually has a peanut allergy,” the president said, according to CNN. “Obviously making sure that EpiPens are available in case of emergency in schools is something that every parent can understand.” Kudos, Mr. President, on a great first step. But given that an estimated 8 percent of American kids have food allergies, I can’t be alone in wishing yesterday will be merely a preview to the main event. If you really want to help your daughter, invest some serious political capital and funding into finding a cure for this bedeviling immune system malfunction that plagues Malia, me, and millions of others worldwide.

Yesterday’s legislative enactment was heartening, to be sure. H.R. 2094, also known as the School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act, sailed through both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support. Under the new law, states that find the sweet spot of school training procedures and tort reform will cut in line ahead of nonqualifying states vying for a share of money the federal government has set aside for asthma-related grants (allergies and asthma often coincide).

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I hope Malia enjoyed witnessing her father’s presidential signature reshape the country’s legal landscape to accommodate the severe food allergies of people like us. When I was a kid, the best my parents could do when I was in the midst of an allergy-triggered asthma attack—which feels like breathing through meat—was keep the mood light while an ambulance careened toward our address. Nonetheless, I now feel a certain kinship with Malia Obama.

Perhaps Obama could find a guide in President Jimmy Carter. Before moving into the White House, Carter was a peanut farmer in Georgia. I’m willing to forgive him that because he would be the perfect mentor to teach Obama how to take a frustrating medical ailment and beat it into submission. From Carter, Obama could learn an object lesson in eradication. Malia, if you’re still reading, find your father’s Rolodex and invite President Carter over for a peanut-free dinner. Orchestrate the following conversation.

After Carter arrives, get him talking about dracunculiasis, also known as guinea worm disease. He’ll tell you and your dad about how this waterborne illness develops after someone drinks from a pond or well that harbors tiny crustaceans that have swallowed microscopic worm larvae. “In infected humans, the larvae grow inside the body to about a yard long, then migrate to the skin, where they eventually burst through, slowly and painfully,” Carter might tell you, citing an info sheet from the Carter Center. In 1986, Carter will say, he fixed his gaze on this disease that struck millions of victims from western India to Senegal. A rigorous campaign to educate people about how to avoid or sieve water that may carry the parasites reduced the number of reported cases to fewer than 550. The Carter Center now predicts that guinea worm disease will eventually join smallpox as the second disease in human history to be eradicated—and the first one to be conquered without vaccines or drugs.

Malia, tell your dad to make peanut allergies go the way of dracunculiasis. We don’t know how to prevent or cure peanut allergies yet, so the first thing to do is increase funding for basic research. Do this, and in a couple decades, after our ridiculous ailment is long forgotten, you, your dad, President Carter, and I can go out for pad thai, my treat. I’ll even spring for extra peanut sauce.

John Kruzel is a Slate contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.