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Monday, 21 May 2012
Page: 4967

Ms BURKE (ChisholmDeputy Speaker) (20:31): I am pleased to have the opportunity to rise and discuss an issue that affects so many Australians and an issue that I have raised in the parliament on numerous occasions. It is something that will not go away any time soon. The issue of anaphylaxis is growing rapidly in our community. The need for government action in relation to anaphylaxis has become even more apparent, given that the number of children suffering from severe food allergies has doubled in a generation. Many studies at the moment cannot pinpoint why, but an exponential number of people are now suffering from severe food allergies that can result in death. I have had the pleasure and the pain of meeting the Baptist family, who lost their son Alex at the age of four at kindergarten, and the Shannon family, who lost their only child, Sabrina, at the age of 13 in Canada. It makes you realise firsthand what this issue means. Having a 10-year-old who is anaphylactic and having had at least one terrifying scare, I know this is something very real that we need to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

But with increased awareness, better management systems and further research in food allergies, allergies do not need to be fatal. The growing group that are most exposed are teenagers, who think they know everything about life and do not need to take any precautions, and who certainly will not carry their epi-pen with them. This is a great debate when we go out on numerous occasions. My nephew who is 20 will not take his epi-pen with him. Even his girlfriend has got to the stage of saying, 'Well, we are not going out to dinner unless you take it with you.' We have had a couple of scares with him along the way too. But as an invincible 20-year-old he knows better than all of us.

An Australian study has estimated that a quarter of the population will have an adverse reaction to food, especially during infancy and early childhood. Food allergy affects approximately one in 10 children and two in 100 adults. Anaphylaxis is the most severe form of an allergic reaction, most commonly food associated, but as many people know there are other things such as bee stings. Many of these food allergies are potentially life-threatening, particularly with food such as peanuts, where even small traces may trigger severe symptoms and even causing death.

The number of hospital admissions for anaphylaxis has doubled in the last 15 years. Death and life-threatening episodes from food associated anaphylaxis are completely preventable. A simple medical procedure is all that is needed to treat it, prevent loss of life and provide the necessary time to transport the victim to hospital for further medical attention. Administering an epi-pen and giving a dose of adrenaline to individuals buys you time to get an ambulance. It does not relieve the symptoms or stop the anaphylactic episode. People need to be hospitalised and we need to get that message through to individuals, that using your epi-pen is not the end, it is the beginning of this process.

Apart from Victoria, where the Baptist family moved with the state government to ensure legislation, there are currently good policies across states and territories. But it is not legislated, and this is causing a grey area. I am a great believer in legislation where things are as important as life-threatening illnesses. I think childcare centres, kindergartens and primary and secondary schools need to have properly trained individuals and this is better managed in a properly legislated sense.

For the year 2010-11, there were 8,840 children in approved childcare in my seat alone. Given statistics, that is approximately 900 children with anaphylaxis in child care. When you send your small child off to childcare or kinder, you do not expect that they will not come home because they have come into contact with an allergen, as was the case with the poor Baptist family. Alex went to kinder one day—there has been a coronial inquiry and how this happened has never been quite resolved—and he came home dead. I do not want to have to see that situation ever again. My child's picture is all over the school. You can see him everywhere, and in the canteen there is a picture of him with the caption: 'Do not feed this child peanuts or eggs; please do not.' That is something he is quite used to; he is not worried about it. But as he moves on to secondary school, it becomes another issue entirely.

Since 2008, the Victorian government has had legislation that demands that each school has an anaphylactic management plan for each student, developed in consultation with the student's parents, carers and medical practitioner; prevention strategies for in-school and out-of-school settings; and a communication plan to raise staff, student, school and community awareness about severe allergies and the school's policy. Regulated training and updates for school staff in recognising and responding appropriately to an anaphylactic reaction, including complete administration of an EpiPen or Anapen and how to use the device appropriately, are very important.

As I said, I have been involved with this issue for many years and personally understand the precautions that must be taken when caring for a child with an anaphylaxis. With the increased number of children with anaphylaxis in each school across the nation, the risk of an allergic reaction is also increasing. It is not something where you can say, 'We won't have nuts at school.' The actual number of items to which there are allergic reactions these days is increasing. It might be strawberries, it might be honey, it might be lettuce—the number of items is enormous. The predominant one is still nuts and many schools have a policy of no nuts.

I want to talk about the SchoolNuts project, which is operating through funding from the Victorian Asthma Association and the Murdoch Children's Institute. I have had the pleasure of meeting with Katie Allen, who is the chair and the driving force of that study. The study is focusing on what has become a major public health concern, anaphylaxis, recognising the apparent increase in childhood food allergies. The research aims to investigate and determine the origins of true allergies in schoolchildren, engage with students to explore the knowledge of and attitudes towards food allergies in children and adolescents as well as provide education seminars to schools following the research. The research is essential in ascertaining modifiable risk factors and thereby helping to improve public health policy. The research aims state:

Since the 1980s, the world has experienced an epidemic of allergic disease. Asthma rose rapidly during the 1990s, followed by increasing eczema and allergic rhinitis, both of which continue to rise. Of great concern is new evidence that yet another allergic condition is on the rise, food allergy, with our own work showing that up to 10% of infants have food allergy proven using the golden standard method—oral food challenge.

If you have ever had to do one with your child, it is fairly scary. The project outline continues:

The emergence of this new allergy epidemic poses significant and unanswered questions relevant to ensuring a healthy start of life for future generations of children.

This is particularly so for the most unstudied age group of children, adolescents, the age group that is most likely to be lost to follow up in the medical system but most worryingly at high risk of food deaths from food-related anaphylaxis.

The study is looking at this group of adolescents by going into schools and recruiting students to understand food allergies and then test students. It has discovered that a lot of them have an allergic reaction to food that has gone undiagnosed. The SchoolNuts program is up and running. It is seeking assistance to get more funding to produce a DVD answering those questions about why foods make people ill, not just making them break into a rash but potentially leading to death. Talking about all those things is very important and this is a groundbreaking study. One of the other unanswered questions is why anaphylaxis, food reactions, asthma and eczema are exponentially on the rise in Australia. We have a greater concentration of them than any other country. Whilst I welcome the action of many childcare providers, kindergartens and schools who have voluntarily introduced policies related to food allergy management, there is currently no consistent national approach to improving awareness and understanding about how to treat a severe allergic reaction in a child. This must change, especially given the increased number of children with anaphylaxis and the potential for sudden death if not treated correctly.

The government must through consistent legislation through the COAG program, with the cooperation of the states, ensure that all preschools, primary schools and secondary schools are set up to deliver life-saving information and care to students. As I say, it is not just about having a photo up around the school that says, 'Don't feed this child peanuts.' It is about how to ensure that an EpiPen is administered and that an ambulance is called.

As I said before, I have been in contact with the Baptist family, who are courageous, brave parents who have lost their son and are still caring for two other children. The parents of children like Alex, who was four when he died, and people like the Shannon family, who created 'Sabrina's law' in Canada, are the driving force behind seeing that no more children die in vain. We should honour their memory by passing laws that will ensure all children are protected whilst at child care and at school.

I have spoken about the increased prevalence of anaphylaxis in our community and among young Australians in particular. The key is ensuring greater awareness, planning, engagement and research. (Time expired)