Somehow, it’s hard to imagine how a home-made pasta bake can harbour potentially lethal ingredients.
But such a dish caused Ashley Gillies, 16, of Desborough, Northants, to collapse just 30 minutes after eating it. He was rushed to hospital and put on a drip.
Since the age of five, Ashley’s life has been shadowed by a severe allergy to peanuts. Even being touched by someone who has been eating them can send him into shock.
Ashley’s last serious allergic reaction — called anaphylaxis — happened three years ago, after his father Paul had made the pasta dish and topped it with cornflakes, not realising the cereal was a brand that contained nuts.
‘Within half an hour he could not breathe because his throat was so swollen. His skin came out in a huge red rash,’ says Ashley’s mother Julie, 46, a housewife.
‘We rushed him to hospital, where the doctors put him on a drip to get anti-allergy drugs into his system.’
Ashley is one of a rapidly growing number of Britons who suffer food allergies so serious they can be lethal. Around 2 per cent of the population, or one in 50 people, suffers from a peanut allergy.
Some studies indicate that since the Eighties, the incidence has doubled every ten years. No one is sure why.
Some scientists suggest it may be linked to the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ — we are brought up in such excessively hygienic conditions that our immune systems have no natural benchmarks because they have not been fully exposed to pathogens, such as bacteria, and become over-sensitive to harmless things such as nuts.
But British scientists are focusing on another possibility — that parents are keeping youngsters away from potentially problematic foods such as nuts until they reach school age, and this is too late for their bodies to then develop healthy tolerances for them. Instead, their bodies go into allergic overdrive.
Anaphylactic shock is a severe allergic reaction in which the immune system overreacts and tissues become so inflamed that potentially lethal swelling can occur. Peanut allergy is the most common cause of death from food allergies.
The authorities report a threefold increase in anaphylactic reactions requiring hospital treatment between 1994 and 2004.
This is hardly the fault of ‘over-protective’ parents. Until two years ago, Government advice to parents was to avoid giving peanuts to children until they were over the age of three, a guideline that had been in place for a decade.
In the light of scientific doubts about the wisdom of this approach, the Government has quietly shelved this advice. But there is no new advice to replace it.
Ashley was kept well away from peanuts as a toddler, not least because his mum thought they were a choking hazard. His allergy appeared at the age of three, at a friend’s party where savoury snacks were served.
As Ashley already suffered from eczema, so his parents put it down to that. But he suffered another episode after eating nuts at a family party a year later.
‘Then, the following summer, we were eating peanuts and my husband touched Ashley’s face. His skin flared up within seconds,’ says Julie.
The family’s GP referred Ashley for skin-prick allergy tests.
‘The one with peanut allergens just went off the scale,’ adds Julie.
Ashley was diagnosed as having a severe peanut allergy and given an EpiPen to carry at all times — a device that injects an emergency dose of the anti-anaphylaxis drug, epinephrine.
‘Doctors say he will have the allergy for life. There is no real chance of him growing out of it, as a small proportion of people do at the end of their teens,’ says Julie.
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