Allergy Epidemic

Reporter: Jackie Quist

At age two, little Matthew O'Neill is oblivious to how prophetic his favourite song is. When the 'Man in Black' Johnny Cash set the music world on fire, he sang to a generation who'd never heard the term anaphylaxis -- half a century later Matthew is one of the millions falling victim to a life threatening phenomenon.

His mother, Grace says its thanks to modern medicine that her son is alive. "If we'd been in a third world country and we hadn't known about the testing, or the awareness of allergies wasn't so high, he probably would have died before the age of one", she said.

There's no honour in the title, but Australia is officially the world's food allergy capital. In the past 10 years life threatening food allergies in pre-schoolers have increased five-fold, with 15,000 children diagnosed annually. Every classroom has at least one child with a serious food allergy and many have several children who can't touch or smell, let alone taste, certain foods for fear their bodies will violently react. "We were astounded to find that one in 10 children had challenged, proven food allergy. That is to say, when we gave the food to them, they actually had an allergic reaction right in front of our very eyes", said Associate Professor Katie Allen of the Murdoch Children's Research Institute.

The top allergist and lead investigator of the latest extensive research, found the allergy epidemic is worse than we realised. "I thought it would be maybe 1% or 5% and I was astounded to find that it was as high as 10%", Professor Allen added.

"We know that it is something to do with modern lifestyle because in developing countries, food allergy rarely exists and in countries that are undergoing modern developments like in China, we're now seeing rates that are rising", she said.

There's simply no cure and the demand for specialist attention is so high, parents wait months to have children tested. The big nine offenders are eggs, peanuts, cow's milk, tree nuts, wheat, soy, sesame, seafood and shellfish.

Grace said Matthew "Actually came back with anaphylaxis to 8 of the 9 major food allergies. He's grown out of the wheat allergies, which is great, he still can't have anything with milk, eggs or nuts in it and he's still slightly allergic to oats, rockmelon, cucumber and pork".

But why? The search is on for answers to one of our greatest medical mysteries. A popular theory is the hygiene hypothesis -- clean water, clean food, a clean environment -- and the suggested overuse of antibiotics. "Maybe it's the dark side of those fantastic public health initiatives that we really need to think about, that we're not stimulating our immune system enough. That includes getting out and playing outside, it includes things like exposure to farm animals and pets", Professor Allen said.

Then there's exposure to the food itself -- researchers now finding delaying the introduction of egg increases the risk of egg allergy. But there's another big hypothesis -- where we live could be a factor. "The early evidence suggests that the further you live from the Equator, the more likely you are to have food allergy and that's based on indirect evidence. We're now specifically looking in our own cohort at levels of Vitamin D -- we haven't got the results yet but it's very exciting to be able to look and find what the evidence actually tells us", Professor Allen said.

Of course it is not only food triggering allergies. Around 4.1 million Australians are allergic to everything from pollen to cosmetics, even baby wipes. Christine Grubb rushed her eleven month old daughter to hospital. "I was panicked. It shouldn't happen -- your baby's hands shouldn't swell up, you shouldn't get a blotchy rash", Christine said.

Grace O'Neill believes genetics are to blame for Matthew's allergies and lives in hope of a vaccine. "When you see all that the life that's in him, the curiosity that's in him, you know the growth that happens, you put the allergies aside and it's all worth it", she said.