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Health Storytelling with Theresa MacPhail, PhD, author of Allergic: Our Irritated Bodies in a Changing World

by Saanvi Nayar

On February 28, 2024, Professor Maryn McKenna hosted a virtual interview with Theresa MacPhail, Ph.D., for the Health Storytelling segment of Emory University’s Center of the Study for Human Health. Macphail is a medical anthropologist and an associate professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology. This episode of Health Storytelling focused on her book Allergic: Our Irritated Bodies in a Changing World, which explores the growing epidemic of allergy across the world through both historical and present-day insights. The book is available at most major retailers, including Amazon and Target.

MacPhail began by explaining why allergies have become such an issue, focusing on historical lifestyle shifts relating to diet, irritant exposure, and even antibiotic usage affecting the gut microbiome. She set the scene for this interview by discussing how doctors traditionally perceived the immune system as only meant for providing protection, failing to recognize for years that it could also turn against the body through developed reactions. McKenna followed up by asking for MacPhail’s inspiration, revealing the author’s experience with her 47-year-old father’s being stung by a bee and dying from the lack of readily available anaphylaxis treatment at the time. This allergy was unknown to MacPhail’s father and family, and I really appreciated this personal contextualization as a way of emphasizing how detrimental a lack of education on allergies can be. 

One of the topics I found most interesting was the inquiry as to the increase of food allergies that develop into adulthood. Having myself developed food allergies in the last two years after having none before, I found it fascinating how MacPhail mentioned the lack of clarity between symptoms representing an allergy or a cold. The author conveyed that there is a lot of research being done in the field of food allergy. She advocates for wider education, so as to be able to differentiate symptoms brought on by different immunological reactions, such as to chronic inflammation versus a virus.

I really appreciate how this interview spotlighted MacPhail’s work, while making the dissemination of communication more effective by McKenna’s evident experience in the field of health journalism. McKenna provided questions that easily flowed throughout the conversation, making the interaction both natural and enjoyable in a virtual setting.