Food allergies are an increasing problem in New Zealand, according to new research1 from the University of Auckland. The study has been published immediately prior to Allergy New Zealand’s 2016 Anaphylaxis Awareness Week, which takes place from 8-14 May.
The analysis of hospital admission data for adolescents and adults from 2002 – 2011 found a 1.7 per cent increase in anaphylaxis-related admission rates. Researchers also found the greatest increase (three-fold over the review period) was among patients with a Pacific Island background.
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction which can be life-threatening. The most common triggers are food, insect venom (bee or wasp) and medications.
According to Allergy New Zealand, there has been little published data in NZ to date about the seriousness of the issue in this country. Overseas studies however, particularly in Australia, have shown a significant increase in hospitalisation, especially children, from to anaphylaxis to food.
This year Allergy New Zealand is dedicating its annual awareness week to the issues surrounding anaphylaxis in New Zealand. From 8 – 14 May, New Zealand’s leading allergy support organisation wants to bring attention to the increasing prevalence of serious allergies in New Zealand and the impact this debilitating immune system reaction can have on sufferers, their families and their employers.
The financial burden of allergies includes general medical expenses, specialist visits and special diets, as well as adrenaline auto-injectors (e.g. EpiPens), which are the only treatment for anaphylaxis outside a hospital setting. These potentially life-saving devices are not subsidised by PHARMAC.
Allergy New Zealand CEO Mark Dixon says, “A US study estimated allergy-related costs to be over USD$4,000 per child, per annum, and this research did not take into account the added social and psychological burden of living with this life-threatening condition.
“In New Zealand there is no financial support for individuals or families living with food allergies, and access to specialists can be a problem in many parts of the country. It can be very hard, and expensive, for families with a child or children at risk of anaphylaxis to find appropriate childcare centres and schools, which can often add to the already large cost of living with allergies.
“Recent research released by Medicines New Zealand2 showed that adrenaline auto-injectors are one of 81 medicines still to be subsidised by PHARMAC and that they have been on the PHARMAC waitlist for 12 years – the longest period of time for any medicine in this country.”
As such, getting auto-injectors subsidised by the Government is top of Allergy New Zealand’s priorities.
Similarly, New Zealand’s foremost allergy support organisation believes the specific issues needing Ministry guidance include what schools and early childhood services should do when a doctor has prescribed a child EpiPens but the family can’t afford to buy them, and whether or not – and if so in what circumstances – schools should control certain foods in order to minimise the risk of anaphylaxis.
By running Anaphylaxis Awareness Week (formerly Food Allergy Awareness Week), Allergy New Zealand hopes to bring attention to how many New Zealanders are impacted by allergies and anaphylaxis.
Dixon says, “The pressure on early childhood services and schools has increased substantially as a result of the increase in the number of people with food allergies. If adrenaline auto-injectors were subsidised for every child at risk, it would be a very good start. We are well behind Australia and the UK in this regard.
“Then there are the number of allergy sufferers who put their lives at risk every day by simply being in their workplaces. The key risks are cross-contamination or lack of education and, subsequently, care. Recent changes in how allergies are to be dealt with in the workplace, as a result of the new Food Act, have significantly increased our phone enquiries.
“Employers are crying out for support and advice in regards to their accountabilities when staff members have allergies. We’d like to seeing funding that provided an auto-injector to the first aid kit of every early childhood centre, school, workplace, restaurant, cafe and tourist centre in the country,” Dixon says.
In this University of Auckland study, Ministry of Health discharge data for adolescents (age 15 years and over) and adults presenting with food-induced anaphylaxis was analysed. Females, younger people, and Pacific Island populations were found to have significantly higher rates than other sub-groups. However the food allergen type was only identified in 21% of cases, with seafood (31%) and nuts (30%) being the most common. Seafood was recorded as the most common trigger for anaphylaxis in Maori, Pacific and Asian people, compared to nuts (peanuts and treenuts) for New Zealand Europeans and other ethnicities.
Rates of food-induced anaphylaxis in Pacific Island adults were 2-3 times that of other ethnicities, which is consistent with a high prevalence of adverse food reactions in Pacific Island children found in a NZ study published in 2010. Research into why the Pacific population in New Zealand is so affected, including genetics, dietary patterns, and environmental factors, is required to better understand the reasons for the increased rates found in this population group. This information is needed to inform the development of public health policies to reduce the burden from food allergy term. The findings reinforce the need for resources and support for the Pacific community in New Zealand to improve access to specialists as well as information and education regarding food allergy and anaphylaxis.
On average 10 people per 100,000 (?15 years and over) presented to hospital with food-allergy related symptoms for the period reviewed.
Overall the study’s findings are consistent with data from overseas, which indicate food allergy as an increasing public health problem across all ages and ethnicities.
While the economic impact in New Zealand is not known, it is believed to be significant, given the high rates in populations already experiencing health disparities, and in particular because adrenaline auto-injectors are not subsidised for those at risk of anaphylaxis, in spite of repeated approaches to PHARMAC over many years.
About Allergy New Zealand
Allergy New Zealand is a national charity dedicated to providing reliable information, education and support so you can manage your or your child’s allergy and live an active and healthy lifestyle.