It’s a staggering statistic, and one that will affect tens of thousands of parents in Australia – 1 in 10 of their children will be born with an allergy that has the potential to threaten the child’s life. The most baffling part is that Australia – with its impressively modern living standards, world-class health care and access to nutritious food, extensive prenatal and neonatal care, and a preventative approach to disease and illness – has the highest rates of childhood allergies in the world. And we don’t even see a higher allergy incidence in rural or remote areas; in fact, the highest allergy rates are in metropolitan Melbourne. It’s a perplexing statistic that is baffling allergists and epidemiologists (scientists who study disease in large populations), but it’s not all doom and gloom – recent breakthroughs have meant that new, promising approaches will be here sooner than you think.
But first let’s look at why this allergy epidemic is affecting so many of our children, and why it seems to be on the increase even now. The first thing we can rule out is solely genetic factors, although they certainly have a role when it comes to individual susceptibility, with the reason being that genes change, or mutate, over much longer periods of time, and tend to appear distinctively in family groups. Genetic diseases are some of the easiest conditions to identify and study. Therefore, when it comes to allergies, researchers are drawing different conclusions.
So What’s Really Going On?
The main culprits being closely looked at presently include over-treated water (a zealousness to eliminate all pathogens and undesirable particles from the water supply through the addition of chlorine), higher rates of antibiotic use (including through food production) and lowered rates of minor infections, and a preoccupation with antibacterial solutions, bleaches and disinfectants, and hospital-grade surface cleaners. The idea is that by not allowing young children to be exposed to pathogens in sufficient numbers, their developing immune systems don’t get the opportunity to finely tune their responses to things that are helpful (which should not invoke any response), and things that are harmful – and the proteins in food that commonly cause allergies are likely very close in composition or shape to things that can genuinely harm the child. Hence, you have a confused immune reaction. Remember, at this stage these propositions are not yet evidence-based, but remain speculative.
Immunologist Professor Katie Allen, who is based at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, oversaw the study that concluded the current rates of allergies in Australia. Although she and her team of researchers (among hundreds of other notable scientists around the country) are working hard to identify triggering factors, all indications point to lifestyle and environmental factors playing a key role. So, they have the evidence of an epidemic, they know Melbourne is the allergy hotspot, and they strongly suspect that something in our lifestyles is responsible.
How Our Kids Are Paying for It
This knowledge also branches into other areas that affect children with allergies later in life. A concept known by researchers as the “atopic march” refers to the risk of children with allergies eventually developing other allergy-related conditions, such as asthma and allergic rhinitis (frequent sinus and nasal inflammation, not unlike a head cold). Although studies in this area are in their pre-infancy (they are proposed, but not yet underway), certainly a correlation has been drawn by allergists, who often see children with food allergies go on to develop these more chronic illnesses. The only consolation is that many children seem to grow out of their allergies, particularly when it comes to eggs, milk, soy and wheat (although nut allergies, seeds and seafood tend to be a life-long hazard).
Some of these allergies will cause extreme itching, facial swelling, rashes, welts, tingling and other discomforting symptoms, but the far more serious reaction of anaphylaxis is what makes allergies a serious and urgent problem. Anaphylaxis will cause a dramatic swelling of the mouth, tongue, throat and lungs and may prevent the sufferer from breathing. It is an emergency situation which requires immediate administration of epinephrine, or adrenaline, which will counteract the effects of the allergy. It is important to remember that while the aforementioned foods will be responsible for 90% of allergic reactions, any food can cause allergy.
A Glow on the Horizon
Although food allergies have no cure and avoidance is the only safeguard, as we mentioned earlier, there is some promising news on the horizon. The big allergy story of 2015 is the idea that we can forget about a cure for peanut allergies, because they can likely be prevented from ever developing in the first place! British researchers published their findings from a study that exposed very young infants, from four to eleven months old, to peanuts, and found that their risk of developing an allergy to them was significantly reduced. While this approach did not completely eliminate the development of peanut allergies, it reduced the incidence to the point where allergists and immunologists have realised that immune systems can be “trained” or coaxed to moderate their functionality. This means eggs, wheat, shellfish and all manner of potential allergens can now be used in similar studies in order to reduce the skyrocketing rates of allergies in Australia. We can now only look forward to more good news.