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Monday, 21 May 2012
Page: 4970

Mrs ANDREWS (McPherson) (20:41): I start by thanking the Deputy Speaker for this motion on food allergies in general and anaphylaxis in particular. I believe that this is a very serious issue. It affects many Australians and action needs to be taken to better inform the community in general and parents in particular about food allergies and also food intolerances.

Tonight I would like to draw attention in particular to food allergies and intolerances. For most Australians, food is a part of our everyday lives that is generally a pleasant experience. Not only do we have the pleasure of preparing the food but we also see it as a social experience. We go out to dinner, we have friends over for dinner and we meet at restaurants and cafes. It is really part of our lives. However, for some people food can and does cause distressing reactions and even death through a severe allergic reaction—anaphylaxis.

A food allergy is an immune reaction to food protein. To manage the allergy and the reaction it is necessary to determine the food that is the cause of the allergy and eliminate all traces of that food. It is mainly babies, toddlers and young children who are affected by food allergies, but this is not always the case as allergies to peanuts and shellfish often last into adulthood or even present during adulthood. But in these cases it is often that the food was not tried when the person was younger. A common example of this is an allergy to crustaceans. A toddler is unlikely to taste a crustacean and hence the allergy is not picked up until adulthood when the older person tries a crustacean for the first time.

The most common food allergies in children are from peanuts, eggs, milk, other nuts, seafood, sesame, soy and wheat. The most common reaction is eczema, which can be particularly distressing for very young children as scratching inevitably makes the eczema much worse and it is virtually impossible to do anything to give instant relief. Also, the eczema can remain long after the food has been consumed, often making it difficult to determine precisely which food is causing the reaction.

The reaction to a food allergy varies considerably depending on how sensitive the individual is to the allergen and how much of the food is eaten. There are also other factors such as whether the food is raw or cooked. Eggs are a very good example of this, with some individuals who show an allergic reaction to raw or soft-cooked eggs, such as soft meringue, able to eat eggs when they are well cooked—for example, in a cake. This is not the case for everyone, but it is the advice that has been given to me by an allergist. As I understand it, cooking or heating the food changes the protein structure and hence the cooked food may not produce an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. But I stress that that is not always the case. As I have already said, eczema is the most common food allergy reaction but there are others, including hives and redness around the face, swelling and, if the food is swallowed, there can be vomiting and diarrhoea. The most severe reaction, anaphylaxis, can proceed very rapidly with swelling of the throat and breathing difficulties, and it can be life threatening if not treated immediately with an injection of adrenaline.

Those who are known to have a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction generally carry an EpiPen. I certainly take on board what the Deputy Speaker said about teenagers and young adults and their view of an EpiPen. Unfortunately, they do often believe that they are invincible and that they do not need to carry their EpiPen. I would hate for there to be a tragedy because of that, but unfortunately that has been the case in the past. There is always that initial reaction when it is first determined that there is a potential for anaphylaxis or when it actually occurs. In most instances there is unlikely to be an EpiPen handy for that very first attack. Often it will happen at home with a parent or a carer, or at a childcare centre where the carers are responsible for the care of that child.

I recently visited a before-school care centre in my electorate of McPherson on the Gold Coast. One of the staff there told me about a child who had recently experienced their first allergic reaction to a food at before-school care. Fortunately, a staff member identified what was happening. They saw the symptoms and realised what was going on, and an ambulance was called and it arrived very quickly. In the interim, the staff member stayed on the phone and spoke to the emergency operator and followed all the instructions until the paramedics arrived. The child was taken to hospital and treatment continued. In that case, the allergen was ginger. It was certainly not something that would have been easily detected in any food that the child was bringing into the centre, but that was the advice that came back.

As I said earlier, food allergies do affect a significant number of people in Australia. An Access Economics report published in 2007 found that 4.1 million Australians have an allergy of some type, and the cost to productivity is $5.6 billion. Two per cent of Australians are thought to have some form of food allergy that will trigger anaphylaxis. Based on Australia's current population, that means that about 500,000 people suffer from a food allergy. So it is a significant number. It is particularly concerning that over the last 12 years there has been a doubling of admissions to Australian hospitals, with a fivefold increase of young children under the age of five.

I note that this motion refers to the work of the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and Asthma Victoria in the SchoolNuts study. I commend them for their work and encourage them to continue with their research. I also congratulate and commend the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Allergy Unit for the work that they have done over a number of years—not only with food allergies but with food intolerances, which is the next issue I would like to speak about tonight. Many people consider food allergies and food intolerances to be the same thing, but they are not. They are very different. Whilst a food allergy is an immune reaction to a protein, a food intolerance—which is also known as non-allergic food hypersensitivity, is not an immune reaction. The chemicals involved in food intolerances can be naturally occurring or artificial. They are quite varied and they occur in many different foods. The issue often becomes determining which chemicals are causing the reaction and eliminating those entire food groups.

The Royal Prince Alfred Hospital developed the elimination diet in the late 1970s, and this diet has now been used very widely throughout Australia and in some overseas countries, including New Zealand and the United States, to assist with the identification of foods that cause reactions. The three natural substances that are most likely to cause reactions in sensitive individuals are salicylates, amines and glutamates. They are common to many foods—for example, apples, tomatoes, peas and avocadoes, just to name a few. So the intolerances that come from these various chemicals are very widespread.

Research has shown that individuals who are sensitive to naturally-occurring food chemicals usually react to colours, flavours and preservatives. So, with our modern diet, sensitive individuals can react to goods that less sensitive individuals consume on a daily basis with no effect. Essentially, our highly processed diet creates a range of reactions for an increasing number of people. Those reactions from food intolerances, whilst not normally life threatening, can be very debilitating and include a range of symptoms, such as eczema, stomach pains, leg pain, flu-like symptoms, headaches and sinus problems.

The elimination diet requires the elimination of food chemicals, both natural and artificial, and food additives for such time as the symptoms have disappeared for a certain period of time and then each food group is reintroduced to test for a reaction. Following these diets is a huge commitment from the individual and also from the families of those individuals, because it has an absolutely huge impact on their life. But it is a necessary step in determining the food intolerances. I believe that it is time for schools to renew their policies in relation to food being brought into school and also sold in tuckshops, and consideration most certainly must be given to children with food allergies. (Time expired)