Boom in food allergies driving physicians nuts
Not so child-friendly ... rise in new food allergies, including celery, alarms doctors. Photo: Natalie Boog
IT WAS once a staple of the lunchbox but the humble peanut butter sandwich is increasingly being shunned from school lunches as the number of children, especially preschoolers, with allergies continues to rise significantly.
Allergy experts and immunologists cannot explain the rise in food allergies in children over the past 20 years.
They also fear it is no longer a problem confined to young children and pointed to a case of a 16-year-old boy from an inner-west high school who died last year after he shared food in the playground with a friend who had been cooking in a food technology class. It is understood the boy had a severe allergy to walnuts.
The director of the allergy unit at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Robert Loblay, said reasons for the increase in allergies remained largely unknown.
''Everybody who works in this field is floundering,'' Dr Loblay said. ''It's going up steeply with no end in sight and the reasons are not understood.''
The same trend was occurring in all developed nations, including in North America and Europe, Dr Loblay said.
''Some say it's because of hygiene. That the immune system is not being kept busy so it turns its attention to harmless things,'' Dr Loblay said. ''But this is an arm-waving theory which doesn't explain the increased prevalence of nut allergies.''
Maria Said, the president of Anaphylaxis Australia, said the increase in allergies was not only putting huge pressure on childcare centres to change the way they operate but also primary and high schools.
''My biggest fear is that these children with peanut allergies are growing up,'' Ms Said said.
Peanut allergies tend to be lifelong, while children with many other common allergies usually grow out of them.
Ms Said said allergy experts did not support total bans on food in preschools or primary schools but parents were often asked to refrain from giving their children peanut butter sandwiches.
Associate Professor Katie Allen, a paediatric gastroenterologist and allergist based at Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Melbourne, was ''shocked'' to find more than one in 10 children had a fairly substantial reaction to foods often linked to allergies in her recent study involving 5000 12-month-old infants.
''We're seeing unusual things and being forced to deal with a new set of conditions,'' Dr Allen said. ''Now we're seeing allergies to foods such as celery, apples and hazelnuts.''