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Monday, 25 March, 2002, 01:53 GMT
Fatal food allergies 'rare in children'
Testing for allergies
Schools are ill-informed about dealing with nut allergies
Severe and fatal reactions in children to food allergies are rare, experts say.

In 10 years, there were just eight deaths.

Researchers from Newcastle General Hospital calculate that if 5% of children in the UK have a food allergy, the risk of that child dying because of it would be 1 in 800,000 a year.

They hope their findings, published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, will reassure parents worried that rates of such reactions are increasing dramatically.

However a second study suggests schools are ill-informed about what to do if a child has a severe allergic reaction to nuts.


Fatal reactions, although they do occur, are very rare

Dr Andrew Cant, Newcastle General
The Newcastle team found although severe and fatal reactions to food allergies are rare, children who have asthma are at greater risk.

Three of the deaths involved children who had co-existing asthma, as did five of the near deaths and over half of the severe reactions recorded.

Milk allergies

Researchers looked at national data for children aged up to 15 in the UK and Ireland from 1990 to 2000.

Information was taken from national death statistics from 1990 to 1998, and from the British Paediatric Surveillance System, which collects data from almost 95% of UK paediatricians.

Of the eight deaths between 1990 and 2000, milk was responsible for four.

No child under 13 died from peanut allergy, though one 15-year-old did have a fatal reaction.

One child with a mixed food allergic reaction died from an overdose of epinephrine, which is used to treat it.

Between 1998 and 2000 there were six near deaths, none of which was caused by peanuts, and 49 severe reactions, 10 of which were.

Mixed food and cashew nuts accounted for 16. This gives a rate of 0.2 near deaths and 0.19 severe reactions for every 100,000 children.

There are 13m children in the UK under 16, giving a rate of 0.006 deaths for every 100,000 children.

The researchers said parents of children under 10 should be particularly reassured, as the risk in that age group is extremely small, and many grow out of their allergic responses.

'Facts - not anecdotes'

Dr Andrew Cant, consultant paediatrician in immunology at Newcastle General who led the study, told BBC News Online: "Fatal reactions, although they do occur, are very rare."

He added: "The problem with existing thinking was that it was based on anecdotes.

"What we have tried to do is to try and say 'let's get away from anecdotes and see if we can get an overall picture'."

Dr Cant said the apparent link with asthma should be a reminder to children with the condition to ensure they take preventative treatment, rather than only taking it when their symptoms are bad.

And he stressed the research was carried out only on children, rather than teenagers and adults.

A second study of 83 randomly-selected schools in the south west of England found many are not adequately informed about nut allergies or what to do if a pupil has a severe allergic reaction.

This was despite the finding 45% of schools had at least one child who was known to be allergic.

Only a third of the children had access to treatment at school.

More than four out of 10 either had no staff trained to use the appropriate treatment, or did not respond to the question.

Cooks and catering staff were only aware of the children with nut allergies in 23 schools.

In around a third of the schools, staff were unable to say what the signs of a mild or severe allergic reaction to nuts were.

Roadshows

Muriel Simmons, chief executive of the British Allergy Foundation (BAF), told BBC News Online: "Severe and fatal reactions are rare in children because of the watchfulness of parents.

"Parents recognise the signs and they do monitor children's food.

"Unfortunately, with major food allergies, you can never tell when the next one might be a severe one."

She said the danger often came when children reached adolescence and started taking more control over what they ate.

Ms Simmons said she was not surprised by the finding schools.

The BAF is running roadshows which, the organisation hopes, will provide a basic education for teachers and lunchtime assistants so that they can cope with a severe allergic reaction.


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