Food Allergy Week 2013
Posted 10/05/2013 by Nigel Brew
This week (13–19 May 2013) is national Food Allergy Week, organised by Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia (A&AA), a non-profit allergy advocacy and support group now in its 20th year. Reflecting what is sometimes referred to as the ‘allergy epidemic’, Australia has one of the highest reported rates of food allergy in the world. Current research suggests that one in ten 12 month old infants in Australia has a food allergy, and according to A&AA, ‘life threatening allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) in children aged under five years old have increased five-fold over the last 10 years in Australia’. There are nine foods known to be responsible for 90% of food allergic reactions, with allergies in childhood to cow’s milk, egg, peanut, and tree nuts being the most common.
The incidence of food allergy in older children and Australian adults (aged 20–45 years) is estimated to be 3–5% and 1.3%, respectively. It is important to distinguish food allergy, which is an immune system response to a food protein, from food intolerance, which typically results from a sensitivity to naturally occurring food chemicals, or an inability to digest certain chemicals, and does not involve the immune system. Although deaths caused by food allergy are very rare, the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) notes that ‘deaths from food-related anaphylaxis are most common in teenagers and young adults’. Anecdotally, this has been associated with risk-taking and a desire to fit in that can arise at this stage of life. Furthermore, while in the past some food allergies (particularly to egg and milk) typically resolved themselves by school age, their persistence into the teenage years is reportedly becoming more common. Other allergies, such as those involving peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish and sesame are usually life-long.
A&AA believes that Australia is not keeping up with the current prevalence of food allergies, stating ‘there is a shortage of allergy resources, including allergy specialists, across the country which means individuals at risk lack timely access to diagnosis’. A 2007 report by Access Economics into The Economic Impact of Allergic Disease in Australia found that in 2007, 19.6% of Australians had at least one allergic disease (for example: allergies, asthma, allergic rhinitis, atopic eczema) and that this is predicted to increase to 26.1% of the population by 2050. The study estimated the financial cost to Australia of allergic disease across age groups to be $7.8 billion, due mainly to lost productivity and health system costs. ASCIA notes that while the cost to Australia of dealing with food allergy specifically is currently unknown, a US study estimated that in 2007, direct medical costs associated with food allergy in the US totalled US$225 million.
Over the years, there has been bi-partisan recognition of the serious impact of food allergies in the community and shared political support at the federal level for a national approach to the management of serious allergies. In 2006 the then Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, and the Shadow Health Minister at the time, Julia Gillard, promised funding of $5 million ‘for research into understanding the causes of serious food allergies’ if elected to government. On 7 May 2013, the Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Ageing, Shayne Neumann, launched a new online portal on the website of Food Standards Australia New Zealand that ‘provides links to best practice information on managing food allergies’. Allergies research is also being funded through grants administered by the National Health and Medical Research Council.
One such project is the ground-breaking HealthNuts study conducted by the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Victoria involving 5300 children, which is claimed to be the ‘world's first comprehensive population-based study of food allergy with objective measurement of true food allergy’. This ongoing study has so far found that the proven incidence of food allergy at 12 months of age is much higher than previously suspected. Other findings include the suggestion that vitamin D insufficiency may play a role in the development of food allergy.
As Dr Susan Prescott points out in her book, The Allergy Epidemic: a Mystery of Modern Life, allergic disease generally is fast becoming a global epidemic, with increasing rates now observed in previously unaffected developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America. ASCIA notes that the occurrence of food allergies in particular is increasing in both developing and developed countries, a phenomenon reflected in the theme of the recent annual World Allergy Week, coordinated by the World Allergy Organization—‘Food Allergy: a Rising Global Health Problem’.
During this and previous years, several prominent Australians have served as ‘ambassadors’ for food allergy awareness, including former president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Mukesh Haikerwal; blue ‘Wiggle’ Anthony Field, comedian Peter Helliar, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Anna Burke—all of whom have children with food allergies.
The theme of this year’s Food Allergy Week is ‘1 in 10’. For more information about food allergies and to view video messages from this year’s ‘ambassadors’, see the Food Allergy Week website, or access the 2013 Info Pack for ways to help promote awareness of food allergies.
The author is a member of Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia.
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