Allergy Bullying And The Peter Rabbit Movie: Why The Controversy?

The new CGI version of the children's movie Peter Rabbit promises mischief and mayhem. But after its US release this week, it is not the stellar cast that everyone is talking about. Instead, a scene in the film that sees a character intentionally attacked with something he is allergic to has stolen the headlines and even prompted a boycott of the movie. Amanda Cassidy discusses the backlash with parents of those with severe allergies to find out how offensive it really is.

"I don't think anyone would laugh if they realised the repercussions of having a serious food allergy. If my son goes into anaphylactic shock and doesn't have his EpiPen, he will die." Louise's five-year-old son has a severe peanut allergy. She says that most people don't understand that a condition like this can be life-threatening.

"So many people think it's no big deal, that he will grow out of it, and I pray he does, but it means we can't leave him at a birthday party unless the parents are comfortable administering an EpiPen. Play-dates are also more difficult - at the end of the day, without intervention, his allergy could kill him. People think we are OTT, but this is my son's life we are talking about and to make light of it is unacceptable and very offensive."

The particular scene that is causing so much controversy features a human character, Mr McGregor. The rabbits find out that he is allergic to blackberries and use a slingshot to fire one into his mouth so they can get into his vegetable garden. He begins to go into anaphylactic shock and tries to inject himself with an EpiPen but collapses. For those who are not familiar with such treatments - an EpiPen is an injection containing epinephrine, a chemical that helps to open the airways and can reverse some of the symptoms of an allergic reaction until the patient goes to hospital. Other effects include wheezing, severe skin itching and low blood pressure. After an outcry from various parent groups and allergy organisations over the insensitivity of the scene, Sony Pictures apologised:

"Food allergies are a serious issue. Our film should not have made light of Peter Rabbit’s archnemesis, Mr. McGregor, being allergic to blackberries, even in a cartoonish, slapstick way. We sincerely regret not being more aware and sensitive to this issue, and we truly apologize.”

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Admittedly, it is all too easy to roll your eyes and mutter something about PC gone mad...unless you truly know what it is like to have a life-threatening allergy. But what this backlash has successfully achieved is the opportunity to educate people about the realities of food allergies and the worrying new issue of allergy bullying. Last year in the UK, a 13-year-old died from an allergic reaction to food that was allegedly flicked into his mouth by a fellow pupil. Karanbir Cheema was known to have suffered from food allergies. He went into a food-induced anaphylaxis and sadly died.

One in five fatal food-allergic reactions in children happen during school hours, yet there is still no obligation for schools, nurseries or childcarers to have access to EpiPens or have training in how to deal with such allergic reactions.

In the UK, new guidelines introduced last October mean that local authority schools are now allowed to hold spare adrenaline auto-injectors if they choose to (it is not compulsory) but there is no requirement for schools in Ireland to have an EpiPen or manage allergens - that's despite the rise in the number of children presenting with food allergies in recent years.

Louise says she has to pay €300 euro to her son's Montessori for First Aid training for the teachers because schools are not equipped to deal with allergic reactions.

"No proper training is provided for teachers about how to handle the situation if a child starts to go into anaphylactic shock. It is a catastrophe waiting to happen. There are children with severe food allergies that haven't yet been diagnosed as they haven't been exposed to certain foods - schools are the place this will eventually happen."

No one was prepared for the backlash when it came to the Peter Rabbit movie, but of course, it should never be considered funny that food is forced at someone knowing it will cause a life-threatening allergic reaction. This is not the gentle mischief we expected from Beatrix Potter's classic children's tale.  This is, at best, a disrespectful example to set for children and, at worst, a dangerous lack of understanding of the challenges faced by those with the condition.

Peter Rabbit will be released in Irish cinemas on March 16th. 

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