Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Matters of Public Interest

Food Allergies

1:40 pm

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise today to talk about children in our community but in a different way from the preceding speaker, Senator Thorp. Nonetheless, I have a very important message to deliver about the safety of children. It never ceases to amaze and inspire me when I move around regional communities and meet people who are doing such a tremendous job in raising awareness of important issues. These people make sure that things which do have an impact and which are of importance in their communities are raised so that other people do know these issues are out there. One such person whom I have been talking to recently is Grace Farrah from New South Wales.

Grace is a journalist and a mother of a six-year-old daughter who suffers from severe food allergies. This is an issue which I do not think gets a lot of air time. It is very much a below-the-radar issue. Yet, for those parents who have young children who are at risk because of their food allergies, it is probably a constant nightmare—'nightmare' might be too strong a word but I am sure it is not for them—to try and keep their children safe. So I want to take the opportunity to raise this issue with the chamber to ensure that we are all aware of the difficulty of this issue and how important it is that we are aware of it and act upon it.

Grace has produced and directed Trigger, which is a short documentary film. She has also created an additional shorter four-minute version of this film. The film seeks to raise awareness of the real dangers of food allergies and the increase in the incidence of food allergy related bullying. It is probably something which not many of us in this place have given a lot of consideration to. The film features interviews with experts, children who suffer from allergies and their parents. It clearly explains the need for awareness and vigilance by the whole community to avoid the serious consequences of allergies.

Interestingly, the two films are not-for-profit projects. Grace very much just wanted to do something that would contribute to raising the awareness across our communities of how important this issue is. It is at I say that intentionally for the record so that people know where they can access this documentary, to see what Grace has produced and to make sure that we appreciate and understand this issue right across the community.

At age two, Grace's daughter, who suffers from an allergy to peanuts, was accidentally given chocolate with nuts in it. She went into anaphylactic shock and was rushed to hospital. By the time she arrived at the hospital, her toes had turned blue. Luckily, the outcome was good and Grace's little girl is now six years of age. As a mother of two boys who are now grown up, I can only imagine how horrific it would be for any parent to have to deal with that situation.

A conversation with the daughter's kindergarten teacher was the catalyst for the creation of the Trigger documentary and website. The teacher expressed a wish that she could have access to something to show other parents in order to help them understand what is required to keep children with food allergies safe.

Certainly the film created by Grace could be used by schools to educate teachers and students, and to pass this on to other parents through newsletters and via school websites. Grace is currently seeking government support to assist in the distribution of the film and the overall increase in awareness. I must pass on my thanks to the federal Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, Peter Garrett, and particularly the New South Wales Minister for Health, Jillian Skinner, who have really made an effort to provide some information to Grace that she can use in promoting this very important issue.

In talking to Grace, it becomes apparent she truly understands the stress that parents and teachers of children with allergies are under. She had told me:

Apart from the stress parents feel, teachers also have the same stress levels with trying to keep the food allergy children safe, as well as having to deal with the increasing issue of bullying. It is truly a never-ending cycle of vigilance and stress and it will help greatly to have as many principals, teachers, parents and children watch it so that they can see the very real effect that these allergies have on so many people and especially, how hard it is for the food allergy sufferers.

The natural desire for a parent to protect their child is further enhanced when that child suffers a potentially deadly food allergy. This creates a great amount of stress for parents and teachers, who are also trying to keep children with allergies safe and at the same time dealing with the increasing issue of bullying.

According to the NSW Food Authority website, Australia has one of the highest allergy prevalence rates in the world. I think that is probably something not many of us have considered. There is no cure for food allergies and the only successful method to manage a food allergy or intolerance is to avoid the foods containing the allergen or food component. In this day and age, the struggle for parents trying to keep their young children safe in that environment is increasingly difficult. While we cannot expect everybody across the nation to be aware and constantly keep their guard to deal with these issues when they are impacting other children and other children's parents, this is just a way today of raising that awareness, as I keep saying, so that people know that this is an issue and that there are things they can do to help prevent what must be a dreadful outcome for those parents having to deal with this.

The difference between allergy and intolerance is that an allergy is an immune system reaction whereas intolerance is an inability to digest a food. Symptoms of food allergy include dizziness, faintness, swelling of lips and throat, wheezing and shortness of breath, itchy skin or a rash, and, in the case of a severe food allergy, a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis, which causes difficulty breathing, vomiting and loss of consciousness. The eight most common food allergens are crustaceans, eggs, fish, peanuts, soybeans, tree nuts, sesame seeds and their products. These are responsible for 90 per cent of allergies to food. I am not sure that in this chamber they are statistics that we are aware of. I am not sure that in this chamber we have paid enough attention to this issue. I would certainly say that I had not before Grace Farah raised this with me. As a parent of two young children, I realised how important it is that we get this message out into the community.

Current estimates show that one in 10 Australian children suffer from a food allergy. In children, the most common allergies are milk, egg and peanuts. Interestingly, the specific cause of food allergy is yet to be determined. One theory is the cleanliness theory, which supposes that children, particularly those in more developed countries, are growing up in an environment that is so clean or free from germs their bodies do not properly develop their immune system. The cause, however, remains unclear, but it has continuously increased since the 1990s. Allergies can be triggered by what is eaten, but also by touch.

Despite the increase in food allergy cases and the high rate of emergency room incidents, there appears to remain a lack of public awareness of the real dangers of food allergies. A recent study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics found increased awareness and education of parents and other carers remains a significant issue in preventing severe food allergy reactions. The study, which observed 512 infants, found a high frequency of reactions caused by accidental and non-accidental exposure. It concluded that undertreatment of severe reactions is a problem and further education and awareness are key to preventing the most serious allergic reactions—exactly what Grace Farah is trying to do with this video and the material that she has produced which is so usefully available on the website that she has created.

Some people, and not just children, do not have an adequate understanding of the serious nature of food allergies. One mother who viewed the Trigger allergy documentary contacted Grace and conceded she had long felt:

…food allergies weren't real and often sent peanut butter sandwiches to school. After viewing the film, I just want to thank you for educating me. I see those children in it and began to realize the selfishness of my views and my acts.

I think it is interesting that this has inspired that sort of response from people out there in the community and again it just comes back to that lack of awareness.

Simple pleasures children should be able to enjoy can become a nightmare and a source of stress and anxiety for parents. I cannot even imagine what it would be like to have to watch over a child when you knew they had to face this every day that as a parent you may have to deal with. Sleepovers with friends, school excursions, eating at restaurants and travel can present many difficulties for parents of children with allergies. A parent may have done all they can to provide a food allergy safety zone at home for their child. However, another parent or parents, teacher or carer simply may not have the understanding of the importance of allergen avoidance or the knowledge to act appropriately in an emergency. Some parents apparently even avoid sending their children to playgroup, day care or preschool. Parents such as Grace tread a fine line between caring responsibly for their children and being overprotective. I think as parents we are often all in that situation, but to be in the situation where you know that every day there is a life-threating situation just around the corner for your child, trying to balance that line between that responsible care and being overprotective must be incredibly difficult. In her blog, Grace states:

When our six year old went on her first field trip to the zoo. My first reaction was to ask if I could chaperone. I knew her teachers were well trained but despite this I couldn’t escape the knot that was in my stomach… There is that fine balance of wanting to protect them and also wanting them to lead an ordinary life.

There are also flow-on effects, and one of those is bullying in the playground by other children. As parents I think we all know that we do see bullying and that children can be quite cruel—a result of children making fun of something they do not understand, I suspect, when it comes to children with food allergies. There is often taunting of the children with the food that they are actually allergic to. Children's human nature is something that we still do need to work on when it comes to those things. We need to make sure that our young children are aware of the situation of other young children who do suffer from the effects of allergies.

A report by the American journal Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found that about a quarter of children surveyed were bullied because of their food allergies, with most of the bullying occurring at school. Reasons for the bullying were found to be the allergy itself, as well as related issues such as having to carry medication, being set apart at meal times and getting special treatment. Sadly, and perhaps most disturbingly, participants listed the main bullies as classmates, but some of the 350 participants in the study listed teachers or other school staff members as the person who had done the teasing. So this is obviously not only an issue for children. We have to make sure that those grown-ups in the room, so to speak, are aware of the impact of this and that they behave appropriately when it comes to dealing with children with food allergies. The report concluded that 'these actions pose a risk of psychological harm in all people, but unique to this population is that bullying, teasing, or harassment can also pose a direct physical threat when the allergen is involved'.

This issue I have raised today is not something that is above the radar or something that we talk about in this place very often, which is precisely the reason I wanted to raise it. It is a big issue for many parents and carers out there in the community who are trying to look after children who have a food allergy and trying to keep them safe day after day after day. Those of us with children who do not have this difficulty to deal with can only imagine what it must be like to be consciously vigilant day after day and indeed, as I said earlier, to deal with an emergency when it does occur.

Hopefully, we can reduce the prevalence of these incidents by raising awareness of food allergies right around the country and how important it is for all of us to understand and know that we need to be aware and that there are things we can do. Grace would very much like to see schools informed of the availability of the film and perhaps encouraged to disseminate the information to parents and to consider whether this is something they would like to place on their website. We need to look at every avenue we possibly can to make sure that we do raise awareness of this issue. Not only is it very important to Grace as a mother and to her family; she is reflective of all those families across the community that have to deal with this very difficult issue. It is a responsibility that falls to us in this place to raise that awareness and to make sure that people know about this very difficult issue. (Time expired)

Proceedings suspended from 13:55 to 14:00