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Food Allergies

This post was originally written in 2016 so some figures may have changed

Today I had the pleasure of chatting to BBC Radio Lancashire’s Gary Hickson on his drive time show about chocolate and allergies. I was invited on to chat as a result of all the stories in the press about the enormous rise in hospital admissions due to severe allergies – anaphylaxis.

Me being me, even though I know my stuff, I still went ahead and did a load of research, wrote copious notes, and asked a friend with a small child with multiple, life threatening allergies, what she’d like me to get across.

Of course, as tends to happen, I managed to get the sum total of zero of my key points out, which is why I’m writing this blog post. Just to be clear, this is in no way a criticism of the interview, which was, I’m told, really very good. It’s just the nature of the beast, and having worked in radio many, many years ago, I knew this would probably be what happened. I also experienced the same thing when I was invited to a select committee meeting several years ago – I had a folder full of information and key points, and I got one across! Still, better to be over prepared than under, right? So here are the points I would liked to have made:

The increase in allergies in this country is, according to the Royal College of Physicians, an epidemic.

40 – 50 percent of children in the UK now have at least one allergy.

Allergy is a chronic disease that is expected to affect 50% of all Europeans by 2021.

The UK is in the top 3 countries in the world for allergy prevalence.Given these figures, you would perhaps think that our health service would be on the ball when it comes to allergies. Shockingly, this is not the case.

Epipens being denied – Guidelines advise that children with severe allergies should have 4 epi pens – 2 for at home and 2 for at school. This is in case the first shot is wrongly administered, or the effects of the adrenaline peter out before an ambulance arrives. Many parents are finding that their GPs will now only allow them to have 1 epipen, despite what the guidelines state.

Cost cutting at what price?

Poor Diagnostic Pathways

In my encounters with parents of children with allergies over the past couple of years, it has been obvious to me that there just isn’t enough help and support out there. In the UK, at last count, we had 30 allergy specialists. That equates to 1 specialist for over 700,000 patients!

GPs allergy knowledge is woefully inadequate. Testing is plagued with problems and will often throw up both false positives and false negatives.

Parents often have to battle for months on end to get listened to, as their children suffer from often inexplicable, excruciating pain.

I’ve spoken to countless adults who have had to take their health into their own hands because they just weren’t getting anywhere with ‘specialists’. We become our own experts because we have to.

Children’s Lives Limited

Children who have allergies are missing out on experiences that many take for granted. Nurseries and schools are often unable, and in some cases even unwilling, to educate themselves about their pupil’s allergies, putting them at unnecessary risk.

Conversely, opportunities to give a child a risk free experience are often missed because enough research hasn’t been done, or parents/caregivers haven’t been consulted. Given the rapidly increasing numbers of children affected, this HAS to change, and quickly!

Disbelief and Blase Attitudes

Unfortunately there are still far too many people who don’t understand that allergies can be life threatening. Incredibly there are even some people out there who, when educated by the parent of a child with a life threatening allergy, will still act with woeful disregard, and write the epipen carrying parent off as ‘overly anxious’. People can – and do – die from allergies. It doesn’t get any more serious than that!

A Lack of Knowledge

This can be a difficult area, particularly for food producers whose knowledge of allergens may limited to the top 14. It is not fair that allergy sufferers have to live limited lives because eating out is too much of a risk, but equally, is it fair that we expect producers to have an encyclopedic knowledge of allergens?

For instance: did you know that pink peppercorns are related to cashew nuts and can cause a severe allergic reaction in those who have an allergy to tree nuts?

Did you know that those with a latex allergy can also be allergic to banana, avocado, chestnuts, kiwi, passionfruit, plum, strawberry and tomato?

Yes, people can be allergic to anything, and no, we can’t ever make everything completely allergy safe, but what we can do is listen to people, and endeavour to do our very best to help them feel as safe as possible.

Food Labelling

Here in the UK we’ve had laws regarding labelling for allergens for almost 2 years. Theoretically this ought to have improved the lives of allergy sufferers, but in my experience, it has made it harder. I have written about this extensively in this blog post. INSERT BLOG POST IF FOUND

Economics Over Compassion

The free from sector is obviously a massive growth market, and many companies are now jumping on the bandwagon to accommodate the wealth of specialist dietary requirements out there. However, looking through the free from section in any supermarket can be depressing for multiple allergy sufferers. Given that nuts (tree and pea) and eggs are in the top 14 major allergens, you would think that free from products wouldn’t use them. You’d be wrong! Even if the free from product doesn’t contain nuts, most will still carry a nut warning, and it is incredibly hard to know whether this is because of a true risk or is just arse covering.

Some companies who have previously been safe for nut allergy sufferers have decided to make products containing nuts – presumably this has been an economic decision, it certainly hasn’t been one borne out of compassion for the most loyal customers they would ever have had!

What is Causing This Allergy Explosion?

Ultimately, no one knows, it’s all guess work. Some experts say it’s because we live in a world that is ‘too clean’ and our systems aren’t able to develop resistance to dust and what not. I’d ask what exactly they mean by ‘too clean’.

There are increasing numbers of studies that suggest that the underlying issue is one of poor gut health. I’d put my money on this being the biggest causal factor.

I’d ask questions about why we are suffering an increase in ‘bad bacteria’ in our guts? What is killing off the ‘good bacteria’? Can we note any increases in, for instance, antibiotic usage that correlates with the rise in allergies?

What about the increasing vaccination load in recent years?

What about processed food consumption? Are we eating more gut damaging food products as a result of our convenience lead, 24/7 society?

To me, saying that allergies are a result of a cleaner world is far too simplistic and not in keeping with the latest evidence. I could go on, as this is obviously a topic that I’m very passionate about, but those are the key issues that I didn’t get to mention on the radio. 

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