How to cut risk of food allergy
GIVING babies allergenic foods such as peanut butter, eggs and dairy products will reduce their risk of developing allergies later in life, according to a respected immunologist.
Amid rising rates of food allergies worldwide, Jane Peake says misinformation and anxiety has made some parents hesitant to introduce the foods to their children too early.
“Their kneejerk response when they’re scared about severe allergic reactions is not to give the children the allergy foods. And in fact, that’s the opposite of what we’re recommending. Parents are advised to start to introduce solid foods between four and six months when their baby is ready.
“Once a baby is eating a range of solids, foods commonly associated with allergy should then be tried. Some parents wait until their child is 12 months or older before they start introducing common allergenic foods but by this time, it could be too late.”
Dr Peake, director of the Queensland Paediatric Immunology and Allergy Service at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital, said research showed that introducing common allergenic foods in the first year of life could prevent allergies.
IT started with a little cough. “My throat hurts,” said my son, tears welling in his eyes. Then he fought for breath, gasping and wheezing. He was having anaphylaxis, having just eaten less than a quarter of a teaspoon of walnut.
Luckily, we were in hospital, having a food challenge with doctors on hand. Two shots of adrenaline later, he stabilised.
My son has food allergies. For him — and thousands of other children — the only way to know how they will react to a food allergen is to have a challenge in hospital. While his reaction to walnut was alarming, we now know how vigilant we need to be.
Previous skin-prick tests had been inconclusive. And he has had other food challenges in hospital which he passed: avocado, almonds and chia seeds to name a few.
While some may describe this as a First World problem, the stress of food allergies weighs heavily on sufferers and their carers. About 10 per cent of children up to one year old and 8 per cent of those up to five suffer severe food allergies.
Hospital admissions for severe allergic reactions have increased fivefold in the past decade.
Is there any other lifethreatening condition that affects such a large proportion of our children? Yet, as the world marks Food Allergy Awareness Week, the Herald Sun reports that children with life-threatening allergies are waiting at least two years for inhospital food challenges. And a shortage of allergy specialists means there are long waits to even get an initial appointment.
The relief of having an allergen crossed off the list of banned food means the heavy restrictions on my son’s life are a little looser.
Imagine a Saturday morning in Melbourne without a coffee at the local cafe. But because my son passed his almond food challenge, we can now go to a cafe and have a hot chocolate because the risk of contamination with almond milk is no longer an issue. And smashed avo doesn’t frighten me anymore.
Allergy specialist Professor Brad Frankum says the long delays in inhospital food challenges add to the anxiety of patients who are too
scared to eat out or even go to a supermarket for fear of an anaphylactic reaction. Maria Said, from Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia, says: “There are hundreds, if not thousands, on waiting lists in each state.”
In my son’s case, we have been told to expect a three-year wait between appointments for his next food challenge. By that time, he will be almost an adult.
So why is there not more funding to deal with this lifethreatening condition which affects so many? As state and federal elections loom, why aren’t politicians promising to put more money into treating the epidemic of allergies among our children?
And as waitlists blow out, a national shortage of EpiPens due to manufacturing problems is causing trauma for those at risk of anaphylaxis. Several times a week, I see parents posting pleas online for help finding a chemist that is stocking an EpiPen that is not out of date; others say they are carrying out-of-date EpiPens because they can’t fill their prescriptions. But how many EpiPens are being wrongly prescribed just because long waiting lists mean a child has been unable to do a food challenge to rule an allergy in or out?
The Royal Children’s Hospital says it has the capacity to test 86 children a week with food challenges, but there are still about 1000 children waiting for tests. Children are prioritised, with those allergic to staples like milk, eggs and wheat given a higher priority.
But parents in a national online allergy support group say they have been told that challenges for other food allergens are unlikely to be done at all — because there isn’t enough funding. Some parents say they have resorted to doing their child’s food challenges unsupervised in a hospital carpark — at least they are close to the Emergency Department if something bad happens.
“We have been told before to do a challenge in the hospital carpark or at home with multiple EpiPens at the ready,” says one mother.
After what happened to my son, I won’t do that.
But why should he — or thousands of others — have to wait years to see if they can eat something that may or may not be harmless?
It’s time our politicians served up more funding for allergy treatment.