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Life-threatening allergic reactions: saving lives

Life-threatening allergic reactions: could you save a life?

Over 35,000 New Zealanders have a food allergy, and an international allergy specialist has warned that this country is a fatality waiting to happen.

Professor Robert A. Wood, Director of Paediatrics, Johns Hopkins University Medical School and Hospital, Baltimore, says New Zealand was a fatality waiting to happen and that to prevent someone dying, the management of food allergy had to be taken more seriously by the medical profession, the government and the general population.

World Food Allergy Awareness Day kicks off for the first time on May 12 and Allergy New Zealand is using this to highlight a medical problem that has doubled in the last 10 years.

Natalie Lloyd, president of Allergy New Zealand, a non-profit organisation formed to provide support to people with allergy and their families, says food allergy is deadly serious.

“St John Ambulance gets called to deal with a severe allergic reaction or anaphylactic shock at least once a day in the Auckland area,” she says. “Many people aren’t aware that having a food allergy can be a matter of life and death.”

There is little support for allergy sufferers living outside the main centres, and the few allergy specialists in the country can only be found in Auckland and Christchurch. This poses huge problems for those living throughout the rest of New Zealand.

“We are very concerned that most allergy sufferers outside of Auckland are not getting the proper diagnosis and management plans, because the costs involved in travelling to Auckland to have the allergy confirmed are prohibitive,” Lloyd says.

“Having an accurate diagnosis and the correct facts about a food allergy are essential basics in helping to save lives. When people cannot access specialist allergy services lives are put at risk.”

To try and alleviate this danger, Allergy New Zealand will be releasing on Monday a new comprehensive booklet “A First Guide to Food Allergy”, plus an education kit designed to show pre-schools how to be a safe place for those with food allergies. This is an add-on to its school education kit, which gives specific advice to schools, such as safe eating, avoiding contamination of play equipment, educating staff and parents, emergency action plans, ‘trainer’ EpiPens, as well as anaphylaxis training videos and videos for kids.

“We want children to be able to live normal lives within the safest possible environment,” Lloyd says.

Lloyd cites a case in the UK, where five-month-old Thomas Egan died at his day-care centre when his carer gave him a milk-based cereal, despite knowing he had a milk allergy and the product was clearly labelled as containing milk protein

In Australia, where up to 20 people die each year from an allergic reaction, 13-year-old school student Hamidur Rahman died last year at a school camp in Sydney after a reaction to peanuts.

“To avoid this happening in New Zealand, we need better awareness in schools and greater access to adrenaline to treat cases of anaphylaxis. We don’t want to have to experience a death in New Zealand to make people sit up and take food allergy seriously, as has happened in other countries,” Lloyd warns.

Adrenaline is the medication of choice for controlling severe allergic reactions and is administered via the EpiPen® auto-injector, available by prescription. Experts say that early recognition of the symptoms of an allergic reaction and prompt treatment can save lives, and raising awareness of food allergy is one step towards preventing fatalities.

“At the moment, it costs $150 for an EpiPen® (adrenaline in an easy-to-use injector pen), which has to replaced yearly, and is not subsidised by the government. This means it’s almost impossible for lower-income families to afford.” Lloyd says.

Based on worldwide statistics (although data is not available for New Zealand), it is estimated that between 6 to 8% of children suffer from a food allergy, with the most common foods being eggs, wheat, soy, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. These eight foods account for 90% of all food allergies. However, almost any food can cause an allergy.

Food allergy facts:

· A food allergy is an immune system response to a food protein that the body mistakenly believes is harmful. When the individual eats food containing that protein, the immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals, triggering symptoms that can affect a person’s breathing, gastrointestinal tract, skin, and/or heart.

· Symptoms of food allergy can include hives; eczema, swelling of the lips, tongue, and face; shortness of breath; wheezing; abdominal pain; vomiting; hayfever symptoms, and even cardiac arrest. If left untreated, these symptoms can be fatal

· About 35,000 New Zealanders (1% to 2 %) are estimated to suffer from food allergy, including approximately 6-8 % of children.

· There are eight foods that account for 90% of allergic reactions: peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans, etc.), fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, wheat and soy.

· Peanuts are the leading cause of severe allergic reactions, followed by tree nuts, shellfish, fish, and eggs.

· There is currently no cure for food allergy. Avoidance of the food is the only way to prevent an allergic reaction.

· Adrenaline is the first line treatment for severe allergic reactions and is administered via auto-injector, called the EpiPen®.

· Food allergy is the leading cause of (severe reactions) anaphylaxis outside the hospital setting.

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