School nurses in New Jersey know all about the dangers of anaphylaxis— a life-threatening allergic reaction to food, insects, latex or medications that requires treatment with epinephrine (adrenaline). In Belleville, New Jersey, school nurse Dawn Gerbino doesn’t leave the issue on the schoolhouse steps when she returns home for the day. A mom of two adolescent boys with multiple food allergies, Gerbino understands the severity of the issue and how curbing allergic reactions demands balance and support.

The balance comes from being vigilant about monitoring allergens around children while fostering children’s independence to manage their own care. The support comes from programming to raise funds and build awareness about allergies and anaphylaxis. That’s one reason why Gerbino is grateful for the fundraising walks organized by the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). “It’s so great to see my kids in an atmosphere where they can let their guard down and feel welcomed since everyone around them has the same condition,” says Gerbino.

With close to 27,000 members worldwide, FAAN supports research to find a cure for food allergies and provides education and support for families.

In New Jersey, nearly 60,000 schoolchildren suffer from food allergies. Even families without food allergies are noticing the surge in afflicted children. Studies indicate that food allergies are increasing, affecting about one in 25 school-age kids, with even more babies and preschoolers affected. Peanut allergies among children doubled from 1997-2002. Another study found that emergency room visits for anaphylaxis are jumping.

Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction vary, ranging from hives, swollen lips and vomiting to diarrhea and respiratory and cardiac distress. Eight foods are responsible for 90 percent of reactions: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.

This year, FAAN is supporting two research grants. One, at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, aims to develop tree nut-specific immunotherapy for people with multiple tree nut allergies. The other, at Virginia Commonwealth University, examines the economic impact of food allergies and anaphylaxis in the United States. “We are optimistic that the research studies funded through FAAN’s Research Grant Program will lead to improving the lives of people with food allergies,” says Julia Bradsher, FAAN’s CEO. “This research would not be possible without our generous donors’ contributions toward finding a cure.”

As noted by Gerbino, fundraising walks go a long way in raising awareness as well as funds to assist with research in finding a cure. New Jersey kicks off FAAN’s annual Walk for Food Allergy: Moving Toward a Cure with help from local celebrities and the nation’s top pediatric allergists. Taking place on September 11 along the boardwalk in Long Branch, the event includes performances by children’s rock ’n’ roll musician mr. RAY and renowned magician Josh Beckerman. Also on tap are appearances by costumed Star Wars characters and other surprise guests. More walks are held on September 12 in Cooper River Park in Pennsauken with honorary chair Jennaphyr Frederick of Good Day Philadelphia and on October 17 at Ridgewood’s Wild Duck Pond.

FAAN gives each walk chairperson grant money to use in the community for education and training. FAAN also gives support groups back-to-school grant money. This year, the Allergy & Asthma Support Group of Central New Jersey is using the money to send school nurses to a day-long conference about managing food allergies.

In 2008, Long Branch was the highest grossing first-year walk location in FAAN’s history, raising $135,000. To date, the community has raised almost $300,000 for food allergy research and education.

Dr. Hugh Sampson, who heads FAAN’s Medical Advisory Board, is the honorary medical chair for the Long Branch walk. Sampson is a professor of pediatrics and chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology in the Department of Pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York.

“We are so thrilled and honored to have someone like Dr. Sampson involved with our walk,” says Cherí Golub, the Long Branch walk chairperson. Golub, a Manalapan mom whose son has a peanut allergy, is hopeful but realistic that a cure will be found by the time her 8 year old goes to college. Currently, only 20 percent of children with a peanut allergy outgrow it. Studies indicate milk and egg allergies are taking longer to outgrow, and more children are suffering from “new” allergies, such as allergies to sesame, kiwi and mustard. To develop a peanut allergy vaccine, Dr. Sampson and his team are exploring a cutting-edge strategy known as peptide immunotherapy. This study is still in the early experimental stages. But if successful, it may lead to a cure for peanut allergy.