The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Grilled-cheese sandwich suspected in young boy’s death

New York City officials have closed a preschool in Harlem where a young boy with a severe food allergy died after being given a grilled-cheese sandwich.

Investigators were at the preschool on Thursday to review the sequence of events. Elijah Silvera's family said staff knew the 3-year-old was severely allergic to dairy products.

Elijah went into anaphylactic shock after he ate the sandwich last Friday, his family wrote online. He was taken to the emergency room at Harlem Hospital, where he died.

“He was given a grilled cheese sandwich by an adult at the pre-K, despite them knowing and having documented that he has a severe allergy to dairy,” the family said in a statement on the GoFundMe site. As of Thursday, more than $27,000 had been raised via the site — money to be used in part for an independent autopsy, they wrote.

“It is unclear where responsibility for Elijah’s death will fall between the pre-K and the hospital itself,” the statement said. “There are protocols that both the hospital and preschool must follow. We want to find out exactly what caused Elijah’s death and that will mean sorting out exactly where, if any, breakdowns may have occurred at either the school or the hospital. We just want justice for Elijah.”

The school, Seventh Avenue Center for Family Services, referred all questions to the city's Administration for Children's Services (ACS), which oversees Head Start programs serving low-income and culturally diverse families. The department tweeted Thursday that it was “actively investigating all aspects” of the Harlem program.

“There is nothing more important than the safety of our children, and we are deeply saddened by this tragedy,” a spokesman for the city Health & Mental Hygiene Department said in an afternoon statement. “We will get to the bottom of what happened here . . . and whether the facility could have done something differently to prevent this tragedy.”

Elijah is survived by his parents and a brother. “It is an unimaginable time for everyone who loved Elijah, in particular for his 5-year-old brother Sebastian, who struggles to understand that his brother is truly gone,” the family wrote online, with photos showing the two boys playing side by side. “We are lost.”

Food allergies have been on the rise in recent years, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that their prevalence among U.S. children increased from just over 3 percent in 1997 to about 5 percent  in 2011.

Roughly 8 percent of children have a food allergy, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. And of those children, 39 percent have a history of severe reactions. Those figures mean that roughly two children in every classroom have a food allergy, making awareness of allergies increasingly important and lifesaving in schools, notes Food Allergy Research and Education, the nonprofit advocacy organization.

The most prevalent allergy among children involves peanuts, followed by dairy and then shellfish.

Read more:

Food allergies are on the rise, as a Clinton, Md., family knows all too well

A mother, learning to walk the food allergy line

One tiny sesame seed was all it took

College student dies after severe allergic reaction to peanut butter