NEW YORK (AP) — Fumes from cooking fish combined with asthma could have killed an 11-year-old boy in New York City but such a death would be rare, medical authorities said.
The city medical examiner has yet to rule on what caused the death of Cameron Jean-Pierre on New Year’s Day, but allergy experts said it’s possible the boy could have suffered a fatal reaction to fish cooking in his grandmother’s kitchen.
“It’s extremely rare,” said Dr. Wayne Shreffler, director of the Food Allergy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Most often it’s an issue for patients who also have asthma, and probably not very well controlled asthma.”
Cameron did have asthma and was allergic to fish and peanuts, his father, Steven Jean-Pierre, said on Friday.
The boy and his father were visiting relatives in Brooklyn on Tuesday when Cameron was stricken, apparently after inhaling aromas from a traditional Caribbean fish dish that his grandmother and aunt were cooking.
Steven Jean-Pierre told The Associated Press that he used a nebulizer to administer medication to Cameron, but the breathing treatment was not effective as it had been in the past.
“Out of nowhere he just said, ‘Daddy, for some reason it’s not working,'” the father said. “He felt like it wasn’t giving him enough air. And that’s when I called 911.”
Police said the boy was taken to Brookdale Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
Cameron’s last words were words of love, his father said. “He took the mask off his face and said, ‘Daddy, I have to tell you something.’ He said, ‘Daddy, I love you. Daddy, I love you,'” Steven Jean-Pierre said.
Shreffler said allergic reactions are caused by proteins in a specific food, which normally would have to be ingested to trigger a reaction.
“Generally speaking the smell of food is not sufficient,” he said. But he added, “respiratory reactions related to fish, anecdotally, do seem to stand out.”
Dr. Jay Lieberman, vice chairman of the food allergy committee of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, said that’s because proteins in fish can be aerosolized by cooking.
“I live in the South where a lot of people fry fish,” said Lieberman, an allergy and immunology specialist at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis. “If a child is fish allergic I tell the family that if they’re going to fry fish in the house the child has to be in a completely different room.”
Lieberman said he’s treated patients who experienced symptoms like hives and itching after breathing vapors from frying fish but he’s never seen a fatal reaction. He called Cameron’s story “devastating.”
Lieberman and Shreffler both stressed that an allergic reaction from smelling a food is not a common occurrence. “I routinely tell patients that they don’t have to leave the room when someone opens a jar of peanut butter,” Shreffler said.
Cameron’s family had moved two years ago from Brooklyn to Piscataway, New Jersey, where Cameron was a sixth-grader and honor-roll student at Theodore Schor Middle School.
Steven Jean-Pierre said his son was looking forward to going back to school and seeing his friends after the holiday break.
“He was a great kid,” the father said. “I don’t know why this happened to my son.”