We must take allergies seriously in Parliament if we are to protect those affected on the outside
Food allergy label (Stephen Barnes/Food and Drink / Alamy Stock Photo)
One in three parliamentarians has an allergy. And yet when Allergy UK, the nation’s leading patient charity on allergy, held a reception in Parliament recently, even the parliamentary authorities struggled to cater for many of the attendees with food allergies.
That’s not a criticism of the parliamentary catering service, it’s a demonstration of how difficult life can be for those with allergies and how it’s high time the condition was taken more seriously.
There ought to be plenty of appetite in Parliament to tackle this. A survey of parliamentarians by YouGov, commissioned by Allergy UK, showed that 30 per cent of MPs have an allergy and 61 per cent have a close friend or family member with an allergy.
Failure to take allergy seriously can have truly awful consequences. This month marks one year since the introduction of “Natasha’s Law”. It was named after Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who died after eating a poorly labelled sandwich. Now food businesses must provide full ingredient lists and allergen labelling on foods pre-packaged for direct sale on the premises.
However, despite this landmark legislative change, too many food firms slap a catch-all “may contain” on their products. That means that identifying food that can be safely consumed is an ongoing hazard for people with food allergies.
And that has a grim impact. It is both alarming and limiting to live with an allergy which could cause a severe or life-threatening reaction at any time. As one parent of a child with multiple and severe food allergies told Allergy UK, “every meal is a source of constant anxiety and fear”. We need to do more to ensure that parents can feed their children without fear of anaphylaxis, illness and, in the worst case, death.
For too long allergy has remained a poorly recognised and sometimes misunderstood health condition. Despite three decades of campaigning, and some improvements, sadly allergic disease is still not taken seriously enough in the UK.
This is despite prevalence rates in the UK being among the highest in the world. Allergy UK’s survey shows this is reflected in Parliament, too.
There has been a staggering 615 per cent increase in hospital admissions related to allergic disease during the last 20 years. Furthermore, allergy and related conditions are estimated to cost the NHS about £1bn a year.
There remain huge challenges in the NHS in terms of the diagnosis, treatment, and management of the full range of allergic disease.
For many patients access to allergy services, particularly at a primary care level, is a post code lottery.
One of the biggest gaps, and arguably the most easily solvable, is in allergy training and awareness at primary care level in the condition. In addition, there remains a chronic shortage of allergy specialists and immunologists within allergy services throughout the NHS. We therefore must prioritise investment in training on allergies at primary care and look to recruit more specialists in allergy to help those in need access the best possible care.
The government has responded to the allergy crisis our country faces. It has pledged investment into research for food allergies as well as the introduction of “Natasha’s Law”.
Our next priority should be funding the expansion of a specialist allergy workforce and expanding allergy training to already-qualified GPs. Establishing a National Allergy Strategy and a National Clinical Director for allergy, alongside the current immunology lead, would also establish a dedicated champion for patients with allergy within NHS structures.
Following Allergy Awareness Week, now is the time to take allergy seriously.
Jon Cruddas is chair of the APPG on Allergy
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