More than 600 Public Schools in Chicago Area Do Not Have Life-Saving Epinephrine for Students

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For many children, the first time they suffer a severe allergic reaction to a food is when they’re in school. Chicago-area public schools can keep extra supplies of epinephrine auto-injectors on hand, for just these types of emergencies, but NBC5 Investigates has discovered that a surprising number do not.

For decades, public buildings have been equipped with fire extinguishers, and now defibrillators. Seat belts have been credited with saving millions of lives since their introduction in American cars in the sixties. From smoke detectors, to fire doors, to anti-lock brakes: While some devices were borne from tragedy, others became mandatory because their invention showed obvious life-saving benefits.

Enter epinephrine, which is a form of adrenalin. Most people with allergies keep an epinephrine auto-injector with them at all times, and can use it to quickly “cure” a potentially-deadly attack caused by anaphylaxis, a severe and sudden reaction to allergies. While the most popular injector is known as an “EpiPen,” the devices come under various brand names. But their use can have rapid and dramatic results.

“You know, you just have to see it. It’s incredible,” says Chicago pediatrician Dr. Ruchi Gupta, who works with children through Northwestern Medicine and Lurie Children’s Hospital. “A child can be having trouble breathing, throat closing, really going down that hill, and you give them the epinephrine and it’s so fast, like within 20 seconds you’ll just see them feel so much better.”

Indeed, the results are so dramatic that there is a push for schools to have so-called “undesignated” (extra) epinephrine injectors on hand, to use on children who don’t have their own, some of them students who had previously undiagnosed allergies.

And those supplies have very likely saved lives. In just one year, during the 2014-2015 school term, the State of Illinois says 63 children and 2 adults were saved from unexpected and potentially deadly allergic reactions because they had access to these emergency supplies of epinephrine in their public school districts.

Susie Hultquist has seen this first-hand. Her 13-year-old daughter Natalie suffered a severe allergic reaction at her private Chicago school last Halloween, and the school’s undesignated injector quickly reversed those symptoms.

“It saved her life,” Hultquist said. “What’s the price of a life?”

State law allows every school district in the state, public and private, to keep these extra supplies on hand. But NBC5 Investigates has found that more than a third of all the public school districts in the greater Chicago area do not keep these emergency supplies of epinephrine.

NBC5 Investigates sent Freedom of Information Act requests to more than 400 school districts in the greater Chicago area -- each public school district in Cook County and Chicago’s collar counties, plus several counties in northwest Indiana. NBC5 was only able to look at public districts, since they are subject to FOIA laws.

Of the 408 school districts surveyed, NBC5 found that 149 districts, encompassing some 671 schools, do not keep undesignated epinephrine on-hand. Officials for a few school districts said they feared that this emergency epinephrine would cost too much money. A few other districts mentioned that it was difficult to find a doctor willing to write the required prescription for the injector. Most districts, however, did not provide a reason for the fact that they don’t have an emergency stock of epinephrine.

While epinephrine is effective for a variety of allergies, reactions to food products may be the best known. In Chicago, the push to put the auto-injectors in schools was prompted by the tragic death of a seventh grader six years ago.

Undesignated epinephrine injectors are now kept at every Chicago school.

“In the first year of having epinephrine in all the Chicago Public Schools, 38 of them were used,” Gupta said. “And half of those were kids that had no known reaction or no known allergy.”

Gupta says while she understands that many districts balk at what can be the injectors’ price, the potential benefits far outweigh the costs.

“Food allergies are becoming way more common today,” she said. “They affect about eight percent of kids, which is about one in 13, which is about two in every classroom.”

It’s such a common problem, that Hultquist, the mother of three whose daughter benefitted from an undesignated supply of epinephrine last Halloween, is now launching Spokin, a website and smartphone app which will help parents navigate foods, restaurants, and the proper use of epinephrine.

“The vigilance is 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Hultquist says. “There is never an opportunity to let your guard down."

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