by Maria Nguyen-Emmett
Allergies are costing the Australian economy $30bn a year and the lack of a national management plan is putting lives at risk, the world’s first Allergy Summit heard in Sydney on August 11.
The summit was organised by the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) and Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia.
One in five Australians suffers an allergic disease – such as hay fever, asthma, eczema and food allergies – most of which cannot be cured.
Now, a national allergy strategy is being proposed by medical experts, patients and support groups to tackle a disease that is often misunderstood but can be fatal.
An estimated 10 deaths occur each year from anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction), according to Maria Said, president of Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia.
Ms Said described the summit as the first step in developing a consistent, national strategy for educating, diagnosing and treating allergy sufferers who are currently given different messages and treatments depending on where they live.
“Different regions have different policies and procedures, and training is not uniform or at a level we would hope that it is,” Ms Said said. “I’ve been involved in six coronial inquests where people have died from food allergic disease and each of those cases could have been prevented with education and treatment.”
Wendy Norton, a GP and mother of three, two of whom have multiple, life-threatening allergies, also stressed the need for a national approach to treating allergies.
“I’ve been to various hospitals and they don’t manage anaphylaxis the same way; even the ambulance paramedics treat it differently,” Dr Norton said.
The lack of a national strategy and standard of patient care is compounded by the shortage of medical allergy specialists, resulting in patients waiting up to two years for an appointment.
Dr Norton described the long wait lists as “dangerous”.
“You’re not given any support while you’re waiting; you’re floundering around for information so it’s scary and frustrating,” she said.
Dr Richard Loh, allergy and immunology specialist, and the president of ASCIA, said the shortage of specialists reflected the “unexpected rise in this epidemic of allergic disease during the past 20 years”.
It is an epidemic that will continue to rise with one in four Australians expected to have one or more allergies in the next 30 years.
“Training a doctor to become an allergist takes a minimum of three years and there is a lack of funding for training positions,” Dr Loh said.
This shortage will also be addressed in the national allergy strategy, to be finalised by ASCIA and Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia in March 2015.