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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 November, 2004, 00:00 GMT
NHS 'fails people with allergies'
Woman sneezing
One in three adults has some form of allergy
People with allergies are being failed by the NHS, say MPs.

A lack of specialists, poor access to services and "ignorant" GPs mean care in England remains a lottery, a Health Select Committee report said.

The study has recommended each of the eight regions in England set up a specialist allergy centre.

Some 15 million people - 30% of adults and 40% of children - have an allergy and the figure has been rising for the last 20 years.

People with allergies have been badly let down by the government
Muriel Simmons, of Allergy UK

Until 1990, allergy to peanuts was rare, by 1996 one in 200 children were allergic and by 2002 this rose to one in 70.

While many are not life-threatening, a number of allergies can kill.

The report said one woman with an allergy almost died while being treated as a heart attack case rather than for an allergy.

'Little training'

Experts giving evidence to the committee described the service as "derisory" and "a disgrace".

Committee chairman David Hinchliffe said: "We discovered that, despite the escalating scale of the problem, specialist allergy treatment was very difficult to access.

"Most GPs have little or no training in allergy and often fail to diagnose allergy properly or refer it to an appropriate specialist."

Hygiene hypothesis
The causes for the striking growth in allergy numbers is unclear
One hypothesis argues that a lack of exposure to microbes in early life may be to blame
This may deny the developing immune system the opportunity to build up its strength gradually
There are only six full-time specialist centres for allergies in England with none west of Southampton or north of Leicester.

There are none in Wales or Scotland.

The report said in many cases patients were seen by specialist doctors such as dermatologists or immunologists, but could often be better dealt with if they had access to a specialist allergist.

Mr Hinchliffe said the absence of a specialist service meant that patients and GPs were often ignorant of the treatment options.

"Patients are instead given drugs, often for years and years, to manage symptoms, when one or two visits to an allergist could ameliorate their conditions, often without the use of drugs."

The committee also challenged claims by Health Minister Stephen Ladyman, who argued that there was no real evidence that needs were not being met, because waiting lists were not unduly long in the area of allergies.

As well as calling for the development of specialist centres, the committee recommended greater inspection of independent allergy services and an increase in training places for specialists.

Delight

The report also called for the government to produce a strategy document to show it was serious about tackling the disease burden of allergies.

The report has delighted campaigners.

Muriel Simmons, of the medical charity Allergy UK, said: "We are absolutely delighted. We have been highlighting this problem for years.

"People with allergies have been badly let down by the government."

And David Reading, director of Anaphylaxis Campaign, a support group for people with life-threatening allergies, said for too long the issue has not been taken seriously enough, adding: "I hope this will be the turning point."

Dr Mayur Lakhani, chairman-elect of the Royal College of GPs agreed change was needed.

"The dramatic rise in the number of people suffering from allergies is very worrying.

"We would like to see robust, clinical, evidence-based guidelines put in place as a matter of urgency.

"As well as specialist training, GPs need ready access to resources for quick investigation and assessment of suspected allergy cases."

Professor Stephen Holgate, of the Royal College of Physicians, said the Department of Health "should play a leading role in bringing allergy into the mainstream of the NHS in order to overcome the current inadequate provision and poor quality of care which is severely letting down allergy sufferers today".

Dr Ladyman said: "The substantial extra investment in the NHS will help deliver service improvements across the board, including allergy services, and it is the responsibility of local PCTs to ensure they are commissioning services sufficient to meet local need."

But the minister added he would be meeting with Department of Health officials over the next few weeks to publish a detailed response.


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