Are we doing enough to tackle allergies in children?
One of the things that has stuck us the most at Ocean Adventurers in the food side of our soft play business is the number of children with allergies. We just weren’t expecting allergies to be so commonplace when we launched the business.
It has been well reported in the news last week that the number of allergies is on the rise, with hospital admissions for severe allergic reactions up 72% in five years.This figure rises to 615% if you go back 20 years.
It is now estimated that about 7% of all children in the UK are affected by an allergy. For us at Ocean Adventurers it feels, albeit very anecdotally and unscientifically, that this number could be even higher based on the number of allergy requests we receive through our café.
But can we be doing more to tackle allergies in children?
In order to answer this question, we need to approach both it from both the reactive and the preventative angles. The reactive angle has been well covered in the media by high profile deaths of young people such as Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died after eating a sandwich from Pret a Manger.
Natasha’s mother has gone as far as to say that we are currently facing an ‘allergy emergency’. She feels strongly, and is in part responsible for ‘Natasha’s Law’ which compels food businesses to properly label all food products produced on site by the Summer of 2021.
This definitely prompts an inward-looking question for us as a business – can we be doing any more as a business to prevent allergic reactions? It is a particular concern for us due to the high-risk groups, namely the pregnant, elderly and babies, that a soft play centre attracts.
We provide a decent level of training for our staff in allergies and food safety, above what is required to meet our 5-star hygiene rating, but is it sufficient? We have a full allergy book on the café and have adopted a colour-coding system for our menu and display boards to help the major allergies, but can we make it easier for customers to understand the full content of the menu choices? How do we make our customers feel absolutely confident in our ability to safely prepare their food, free from allergens?
These questions are not meant as easy to answer single-use thought-provokers, but instead as questions that we will keep coming back to again and again as necessary.
The second aspect of this headline question is are we doing enough as parents to prevent allergies or even just to reduce the impact of these allergies? This is a very emotive and passionate topic for some parents, especially those who face a daily battle to protect their children from severe allergic reactions from even the smallest of exposures.
Some parents have even been forced to take the difficult decision to withdraw their children from mainstream education and recreation activities due to the high risk posed by public environments.
But research is starting to indicate that controlled exposure could actually be part of the cure for some children. Take the LEAP study, conducted by Kings College London, for example that showed a 80% reduction in peanut allergies amongst children that regularly ate peanut from the year they were born until the age of 5.
This study in particular led the US to change their official guidance in 2017 to recommend introducing peanut-containing foods from as early as four months old to reduce the impact of developing allergies. The UK might still be a little behind in updating our guidelines as distinctly as the US, but it does seem to warrant further study.
Others have also cited overly-clean household environments encouraging the immune system to attack otherwise harmless things in the body in the absence of fighting infection and a lack of vitamin D in children as being potential causes.
However, whatever your opinion on the cause of allergic reactions it is clear that allergic reactions are most definitely on the rise in the Western world and most scientists seem to point towards the cause being environmental, which is surely something we can change once we have the right research to point towards what is causing this rise.
Or to put it another way, as with most things, it seems to come back to investment and funding to stop more young people dying unnecessarily. Whilst significant strides have been made on the reactive aspect of allergic reactions in compelling businesses to properly label their products by the summer of 2021, the preventative side of this question still has further work needed.
But Natasha’s parents are not stopping with legislative change. Indeed, they remain focussed on finding a cure to stop the increase in allergic reactions, with the ultimate goal of setting up a research centre for allergies at the University of Southampton. On the website homepage they note: ‘the allergy conversation has just started and we now need to keep talking’.
How much further does the percentage of young people affected by allergies need to grow before this topic is given the focus, attention and most importantly funding that it deserves?
Interested in reading further? Why not join ‘Natasha’s Army’ and visit the website - https://www.narf.org.uk- to find out more information on this topic?
Children in hospital with severe allergic reactions up 72%, https://news.sky.com/story/children-in-hospital-with-severe-allergic-reactions-up-72-11861652
Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, https://www.narf.org.uk/meetourresearchers
Allergies: Teenagers needing hospital treatment up 65% in five yearshttps://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-50125793
Why the world is becoming more allergic to food, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-46302780