Cartoon by Tiffany Glass Ferreira

Thank you, Sean Parker

A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? $24 million pledged to find a cure for food allergies.

I don’t want anyone to miss the brilliance of the cartoon above: The first panel is where food-allergy people like me live right now. We are often told in a semi-accusatory way that our life-threatening issue is new. People spit out the word like it’s a curse.

The second panel is a beautiful vision for the future: A world without food allergies.

In case you missed the news, serially-successful entrepreneur Sean Parker pledged $24 million to bring that future a little closer by creating a new innovation center for food allergy research at Stanford.

There are a few intriguing aspects to this story:

  1. Sean Parker publicly said for the first time that he’s had 14 life-threatening allergic reactions in the past four years. That’s a lot.
  2. He has done his homework and is betting on Kari Nadeau, MD, PhD, aka the Allergy Buster. That’s bold.
  3. He is famous. That’s important.

This is the biggest, most high-profile gift ever to the food-allergy research community. Will Sean Parker’s commitment quiet those people who would otherwise dismiss food allergies as an overhyped problem? Are his 14 near-death episodes enough for people to take the threat seriously? Is the promise offered by Dr. Nadeau and other scientists alluring enough for everyone to get excited about?

I hope that his gift and fame will change the public conversation about food allergies. Because right now it can be poisonous.

If you, like me, have a love/hate relationship with online comments, you may be familiar with Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches.”

There is a food-allergy equivalent, which I think we need to name. I’ve called it the Numerator Law: Every online discussion about food allergy will eventually include an assertion that the threat is overblown, that the percentage of people affected is so small that the rest of us shouldn’t have to accommodate this tiny group.

Other online commenters focus on the new-ness of food allergy. They seem to think that because they have not heard of it before, the threat is somehow less valid. And it is vaguely the sufferers’ — or their mothers’—fault. For example, I’ve been told that my younger son has food allergies because I keep my house clean (by a person whose place is so messy that I would hesitate to sit down anywhere, but I don’t judge).

Here’s what I say to people who claim the threat is overblown based on population-level statistics: Those numbers are no longer relevant when someone is clinically diagnosed with food allergy. The 1/1000 becomes 1/1. The tiny group includes a lot of people I know and love. And it includes Sean Parker.

To the people who start their critique with words like, “In my day…” I say: Stop displaying your ignorance. You sound ridiculous. Food allergy is on the rise. It is a problem to be solved, not denied.

And to those who are looking for reasons to blame food allergies on something (including my housekeeping), I say: OK, let’s study it. Let’s look at the microbiome. Let’s look at environmental factors. Let’s honor the courage of the people undergoing experimental treatments.

Thank you, Sean Parker, for this gift to Stanford and to the food-allergy community. May a cure for food allergies be discovered in our lifetime.


Note: Sean Parker has repudiated the “million dollars isn’t cool” quote referenced above. I hope he doesn’t mind that I turn it around to show that his deployment of wealth for the public good is what makes him truly cool.

Also: Tiffany Glass Ferreira’s Food Allergy Fun blog is worth a click. And, if you’d like to learn more about my experience as a food allergy mom, check out: Food allergy 101; 20 minutes; and Four hours on a school bus (yep, also by me — I couldn’t be “out” as a food-allergy mom when I wrote it. The comments section includes my first draft of the Numerator Law).