Strategy needed for allergy sufferers

Carol McHaffie suffers Oral Allergy Syndrome.
John Bisset

Carol McHaffie suffers Oral Allergy Syndrome.

A five-fold increase in people suffering allergies over the last decade in New Zealand is exacerbated in the South Island where there are no public health specialists in the area.

There are 10 public health immunologists specialising in allergies in the country: eight in Auckland and two in Wellington.

Allergy New Zealand chief executive Mark Dixon said 25 years ago most people did not know anyone at school with an allergy but now most people know at least one such person.

Food allergies were the most dangerous and disruptive so received the most attention, he said.

"Food allergies tend to have very strong reactions, with people going into shock and having to go to hospital."

When a person has an anaphylactic reaction their blood pressure dives, starving the body of oxygen. An EpiPen with adrenaline in it will help counteract the reaction but they are expensive, are not subsidised and expire after a year.

"If a South Islander wants to see a specialist they have to go to Wellington at their own expense."

Though there has been a lot of research into allergens, there were still no certainties, or cure.

"The Western World was more susceptible and allergies are more prevalent," Dixon said.

Some theories suggest people in the Third World have less hygienic conditions and are exposed to more bacteria, making their immune systems stronger. They don't have processed or packaged food and tend to eat raw produce.

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Family members of beekeepers, particularly in the north of the South Island, had a high propensity to allergy from bee venom as they were exposed regularly to it.

"So their reaction becomes stronger each time."

Dixon would like to see a national strategy for allergy sufferers, like there has been for asthma.


Eating out for allergy sufferers in Timaru can be awkward, but chefs usually try to please.

Registered nurse Carol McHaffie, who suffers from oral allergy syndrome, finds it quite challenging going out for dinner, but said the majority of restaurants in Timaru had been very accommodating.

"I have to ask them what is in everything," she said.

Her allergy, from cross-reacting allergens found in silver birch pollen and New Zealand-grown fruit and vegetables, limits her choice of food. Reactions to the food in question cause her throat to swell.

Because her body is in a state of heightened sensitivity, she must take mast cell stabiliser and antihistamine daily.

She grew up on a farm near Hanging Rock and had a healthy lifestyle, with fresh vegetables and meat, but when she was pregnant with her now adult twins, she reacted to a raw carrot.

"My tongue burned."

It was not until she swelled up after consuming a nectarine six years ago that she sought medical help.

"The worst part is watching someone eating fresh salad or fruit . . . sometimes it drives me crazy as I wish I could do that."

Her repetitive menu consists of fresh meat and a few vegetables she does not react to, such as homegrown parsnip and silverbeet.

Jolly Potter owner Laurie Sullivan has worked in the hospitality industry for 42 years and has noticed the number of people with allergies has increased.

"If someone with a severe egg allergy has a steak cooked on a grill that had an egg on it, it makes it tricky. We have to use a different pan."

If diners rang about their allergies before arriving, it helped, he said.

At Nelly's Restaurant and Bar in Pleasant Point, a spokeswoman said there were patrons who were gluten-free, but not many with other allergies.

"There's one woman who comes occasionally who is allergic to pepper."

Allergy New Zealand chief executive Mark Dixon said there were no requirements on New Zealand restaurants to feed diners with allergies.

"They are within their rights not to serve them. If they are not set up for it and have a crack at it, it could be a nightmare."

Diners have a moral responsibility to inform the chef if they are likely to react badly to an ingredient, he said.

 - The Timaru Herald

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