The rise of an allergy nation

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AUSTRALIA - Taped to the wall of a child-care centre in inner-city Sydney is a four-page spreadsheet of children's allergies.

One little girl brings her own water and one little boy can drink only soy milk. There are three vegetarians and a handful of gluten-frees. One poor soul can't eat honey, strawberries, peanuts, eggs or sesame products.

It's a compelling snapshot of our itchy, scratchy nation, in which about 40 per cent of Australians have an allergic disease, including asthma, eczema, food allergies, and hay fever.

Another week, another health fad? Sure, it's easy to dismiss our obsession with gluten-free diets and ayurvedic medicine as the latest consumer craze. Vogue magazine recently described health as the new Prada - another thing to show off and lavish money on. Yet startling international research shows that allergies are indeed on the rise. The International Study Of Asthma And Allergies In Childhood found the number of children with allergies rose worldwide in the 1990s.

The study, published in British medical journal The Lancet last month, involved 56 countries, including Australia, and interviewed 500,000 children aged six or seven and 13 or 14 about their symptoms. It found rates of asthma, eczema and hay fever increased between 1991 and 2003, with the younger age group most susceptible.

The Australian data, collected from a group of Melbourne schoolchildren in the younger age group only, showed increases in eczema and hay fever but decreases in asthma. The asthma finding is supported by research suggesting a plateauing in the number of asthma cases in the first part of this decade, and possibly a decrease now. So why?

"That's the $64,000 question," says Dr Rob Loblay, director of the allergy unit at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney.

The hospital's food allergy case load has more than doubled in recent years and accounts for more than a third of the unit's patients. Loblay is trying to understand the dramatic rise in anaphylaxis - the most severe form of allergic reaction. It can happen in minutes and cause life-threatening constriction of the airways.

The condition first gained national prominence in 1991 when Sydney mother Richelle Townsend suffered irreparable brain damage after eating a Thai meal containing traces of peanuts.

The death of 13-year-old Hamidur Rahman after eating peanut butter on a school camp in 2002 prompted calls for mandatory allergy education for teachers across Australia.

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