Walking the Allergy Tightrope: Addressing the rise of allergies and anaphylaxis in Australia

  • June 15, 2020

Today I present the report of the Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport entitled Walking the allergy tightrope: Addressing the rise of allergies and anaphylaxis in Australia. Australia has been called the world’s allergy capital because of the high prevalence rates of allergies in Australia, and it’s on the rise. In fact, it is estimated that allergies now affect one in five Australians. It’s not a title any nation would aspire to, because, while allergies can be mild for some people, for many others they can be both life-threatening and extremely debilitating.

During this inquiry we heard from those with direct experience living with allergies, from those who have lost loved ones to Australians who live every day in trepidation either for themselves or for their children. We heard of lives that were forever shaped by the shadow of allergies and anaphylaxis. That’s why this inquiry was so important, and I want to start by thanking all of those who, either through their submissions or at the public hearings, shared their experience—particularly the mums, who seem to do the heavy lifting when it comes to advocacy. Their testimony moved the committee and made us more resolute in understanding the importance of our task.

Allergic disease includes several different conditions, the most common of which are food allergies and drug allergies. Other allergies, including eczema, hay fever, hives, allergic asthma, insect bite and sting allergies and latex allergy, were also considered by the committee. Anaphylaxis is the most severe form of allergic reaction and is life threatening if not immediately treated. The reason for the rise in allergies is the subject of intense research and speculation, but there is no one answer or even agreed certainty about the causes. Theories range from the germ hypothesis—have we sanitised our lives to the point where we have weakened the maturing of our immune systems?—through to vitamin D deficiency. Our experience in seeing the growth of allergies is not globally unique and does seem to be more pronounced in wealthier nations like our own.

Australia is currently a world leader in allergy research, but further research is necessary in order to understand and treat allergic disease. This report recommends the establishment of a national centre for allergies and anaphylaxis to undertake research on current and emerging allergies and to establish a national register for anaphylaxis and drug allergies.

The report makes 24 recommendations in total about how we can improve the support given to people who are living with allergies. In addition to increasing our research capacity and knowledge base, some of our key priorities include improving access to specialists and training for the medical workforce to overcome the unacceptably long delays faced by many individuals and families in receiving diagnosis and treatment. Too many Australians, including infants, are waiting months and in fact years for the most basic assessment by a specialist in the public health system.

The second priority is improving financial support for those with severe allergies and their carers, including by ensuring appropriate MBS items for food challenges, access and carer payments. Third is improving food labelling. So many times we heard from parents about the nightmare of simply going to a supermarket when your child’s life could be at risk from one misstep in the shopping trolley. Better food labelling is basic but vital. The fourth is addressing the occasional but worrying shortages that Australians face in the supply of EpiPens, a product that is the first line of defence for someone experiencing an anaphylactic attack. The fifth is ensuring support for the treatment of insect and other allergies, including tick allergies and, unique to our country, jack jumper ant allergies. Finally is better management of drug allergies, including ensuring that drug allergies are not being overdiagnosed, resulting in constraining treatment options for patients.

During the inquiry many individuals, especially parents of children living with food-related allergies, advocated for the increased availability of food immunotherapy. This is an area that will benefit from further research in Australia, and this report recommends that clinical research be undertaken with the aim of being able to offer well-understood and safe immunotherapy in the future.

I would like to thank the individuals and organisations who took the time to write submissions and appear at public hearings. The quality of those contributions was outstanding. I hope the recommendations in this report will lead to changes that assist people living with allergic disease to have a better quality of life in the future. I also want to thank the Minister for Health, who is in the chamber today with us, for referring this matter to the committee. We appreciated the opportunity to make what I hope is an important inquiry.

Finally, my sincere thanks to all committee members for their engagement with this inquiry. I am especially grateful to several committee members who contributed their own medical expertise and knowledge of this topic, including our deputy chair, the member for Macarthur. I particularly want to acknowledge the role of the member for Higgins, whom we were fortunate to have join the committee for this inquiry. Dr Allen is one of Australia’s foremost experts on allergies, and her role during this inquiry was invaluable. I also want to thank committee staff Joel Bateman, Rebecca Gordon, Tegan Scott and Tamara Palmer for their outstanding support to the committee during this inquiry. I commend this report to the House and hope it does lead to meaningful change for the growing numbers of Australians who suffer with dreadful problems associated with allergies in this country. I commend the report to the House.