An allergy expert says Australian children have the highest recorded rate of food allergies in the world and warns the statistics could translate into a wave of chronic diseases.
An Australian study involving 5,000 infants has found one in 10 has a food allergy, with the highest rates found among children in Melbourne.
Immunologist Professor Katie Allen from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute conducted the study.
“We gave the food to the child to see where they had objective reactions of an allergy, and 10 per cent of those children did demonstrate food allergies,” she said.
“We don’t want to be proud to be setting records, but there’s absolutely no doubt that’s the highest rate yet published in the world.”
Professor Allen says researchers are trying to identify why Australia has such a high allergy rate.
“That’s the $64 million question. And in fact our Health Nuts study is attempting to address an enormous amount of possible environmental factors or lifestyle factors that could be influencing this rate,” she said.
“We do know it’s something to do with lifestyle factors, because this change in prevalence has occurred more rapidly than we could have anticipated if just the genes were changing.
“But we certainly have evidence that there’s an allergy epidemic occurring across Australia, it’s just Melbourne appears to be one of the highest areas.”
Work is also being done to determine what effect food allergies in children will have on them in later life.
“There’s this concept called the atopic march, which is where children who have a risk of allergy have eczema early in life and then go onto develop other concerning issues, diseases like asthma and allergic rhinitis,” Professor Allen said.
“And no-one’s ever studied whether food allergies are part of that atopic march, but if you ask any clinical allergist they’ll say kids with food allergies seem to be more likely to get asthma, and no-one’s formally ever studied that before.
“So what we plan to look at is to see whether these kids go on to develop things like asthma.”
Professor Allen says a growing prevalence of allergies will lead to greater burdens on Australia’s health system.
“If we’re having more allergic outcomes within the community, that could translate to more burden of disease from asthma, which is a real problem within our community,” she said.
“I suppose the most tantalising issue is that I suspect some of the outcomes we’re looking at, or some of the lifestyle factors we’re looking at, may be related to what we regard as absolute public health benefits for our community.
“So some of the factors we think might be contributing include things like better water supplies, lower rates of infection, high use of antibiotics across the food supply and in children and ourselves.
“So maybe this is just an example of life’s getting better for us and that’s come at a small cost, I suppose.”
She says one of a number of hypotheses her team is investigating is that by making everything around us cleaner, we might be making our bodies rebel against other things.
“I have to say I like to be evidence-based, and we have yet to look at that more formally in our studies,” she said.