Public Release: 

Confusion about allergies is putting people at risk say experts and medical charities

SAGE

In Making Sense of Allergies2, a guide published today by Sense About Science3, allergy specialists and charities warn that essential information and life-saving actions are being diluted in a sea of over diagnosis.

  • There has been a rapid rise in allergies across developed countries. The percentage of children diagnosed with allergic rhinitis and eczema have both trebled in the last 30 years4. Allergies are now better diagnosed and their incidence in populations has risen. But there is concern that allergy has also become a catch-all diagnosis for unexplained symptoms, and this rise has been accompanied by a lot of non-medical diagnosis and treatment.

  • Most allergy tests and natural treatments offered on the high street and online have no scientific basis. These ineffective tests and other kinds of self-diagnosis are creating a large proportion of people who think they have an allergy when they don't. One study found 40% of people report they have a food allergy, when in fact only 1-5% do5. Another found 34% of parents reported food allergies in their children but only 5% actually had an allergy6. Myths about artificial additives, junk food and immunisations causing allergies are also contributing to self-diagnosed allergy.

  • The result is that people are not getting other medical conditions diagnosed, taking useless treatments, and needlessly restricting diets, including for children where resulting cases of malnutrition have been observed by clinicians. Meanwhile dangerous allergies are trivialised. Seven times as many people were admitted to hospital with severe allergic reactions in Europe in 2015 than in 2005. UK hospital admissions for anaphylaxis increased 615% between 1992 and 2012.

Comments

Tracey Brown, Director, Sense About Science:

"Sense About Science has finally tackled allergy. It's probably the biggest mess for science communication, where myths, misinterpreted studies and quackery collide with under and over diagnosis. The costs are huge - unnecessary actions for some and not enough action for those whose lives depend on it."

Tariq El-Shanawany, Consultant Clinical Immunologist on behalf of British Society for Immunology:

"I come across many misconceptions about allergy, and see the dual problems of over- and under- diagnosis of allergy. For example, in some cases patients are following needlessly restrictive diets, but in other cases haven't fully appreciated the importance of strictly avoiding a particular food."

Emily Jesper, Assistant Director, Sense About Science:

"People want information: there are 100 million allergy-related Google searches a year. There is still a lot that specialists don't know about the causes of allergies, but it is important that what we do know is not drowned out by misinformation."

From allergy experts:

Michael Perkin, Consultant Paediatric Allergist on behalf of Cochrane UK:

"The level of misinformation surrounding allergies is staggering. Most of my consultations include refuting firmly held beliefs that usually have no scientific foundation. It is a great step in the right direction that Making Sense of Allergies has been produced. I very much hope it will help to empower families to understand better what allergies are all about."

Paul Seddon, Consultant Paediatric Allergist on behalf of Cochrane UK:

"I commonly see children who've been put onto unnecessarily restricted diets because their parents assume, in good faith, that they have allergies to multiple foods on the basis of 'allergy tests' which have no scientific basis. This needs to stop, which can only happen if we debunk these 'tests'."

Adam Fox on, Consultant Paediatric Allergist on behalf of Allergy Academy:

"Every day in my clinic I hear many of the urban myths that seem to have developed around allergy. Many of these result in delayed diagnosis, such as the use of completely unscientific tests, whilst others create enormous anxiety. I am delighted to have been part of an initiative that will help put pay to some of the many misconceptions around allergy."

Rubaiyat Haque, Consultant Allergist on behalf of the British Society for Allergy & Clinical Immunology:

"The growing incidence of allergic disease, combined with a relative lack of specialist allergy expertise in the medical community, present us with significant challenges. There is the real danger of severe allergic disease being missed, but just as frequently, allergy is being over diagnosed leading to unnecessary restrictions and inappropriate treatments. This new guide should assist the public in understanding allergies better and to empower them to seek good quality medical advice."

From medical charities & parenting forums:

Maureen Jenkins, Clinical Director, Allergy UK:

"Allergy UK is often the first port of call for millions of people in the UK searching for advice and support for allergies and intolerances. Our helpline dispels myths and misguided beliefs that people have about the diagnosis of allergy, on a daily basis. Our clinical team work hard to ensure that those with severe allergy are guided to allergy experts for correct diagnosis and management. We are pleased to be working with the Making Sense of Allergies guide, to better explain the truth about allergic disease."

Moira Austin, Helpline & Information Manager, Anaphylaxis Campaign:

"The Anaphylaxis Campaign receives thousands of calls and emails each year from people living with severe allergy, many of whom have been given outdated or inaccurate information and advice. People coping with dangerous allergies are encountering cynicism: waiters think customers with food allergies are just being fussy. This situation is made worse by the confusion about allergy symptoms, testing, diagnosis and treatment which can result in great anxiety and can even put the patient at risk."

Samantha Walker, Director of Research & Policy, Asthma UK:

"Every day we hear from people via our helpline or social media, confused about the latest allergy news or health trends and seeking advice on how to manage their asthma as a result. Many of the 1 in 11 people with asthma in the UK also have allergies, so this is an issue that affects millions of people. Access to clear unbiased information is essential to help people make the right decisions about their own health and the health of their family."

Justine Roberts, CEO, Mumsnet:

"Allergies and intolerances are widely discussed on Mumsnet, and while lots of our users are very clear about the differences between the two, others may be more unsure - particularly if it's an emerging issue for either themselves or their child. We've got a long history of working with Sense About Science on issues from libel reform to fertility, and we're pleased they're participating in a Q&A with our users about the evidence around allergies7."

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For more information and interviews please contact Emily Jesper on ejesper@senseaboutscience.org on +44 (0)20 7490 9590.

Cheltenham and weekend contact: Victoria Murphy 07923 454964.

Notes to editors

1. An embargoed copy of the guide, Making Sense of Allergies can be downloaded at this private Dropbox link (not for publication): https://www.dropbox.com/s/4uxks2iu4058rx2/EMBARGOED%20UNTIL%201400HRS%20BST%20Thursday%204th%20June%202015%20MSoAllergies_LR.pdf?dl=0

After 1400BST 4th June 2015 an electronic version of the guide will be available to download at http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/making-sense-of-allergies.html

2. The guide is launched at a British Society for Immunology event at Cheltenham Science Festival, which sold out in under an hour. Sense About Science's Director Tracey Brown and consultant immunologist Tariq El-Shanawany will discuss myths and realities. Thursday 4th June at 14:00: Myth-Busting: Allergies, BBC Science Zone http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/science/whats-on/2015/myth-busting-allergies/. Sense About Science contact at Cheltenham: Victoria Murphy 07923 454964

3. Sense About Science is a UK charity that puts science and evidence in the hands of public http://www.senseaboutscience.org

4. Gupta R et al. (2007) Time trends in allergic disorders in the UK. Thorax 162:91-96

5. Rona JR et al. (2007) The prevalence of food allergy: A meta-analysis. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 120:638-646

6. Venter C et al. (2008) Original article: Prevalence and cumulative incidence of food hypersensitivity in the first 3 years of life. Allergy 63:354-359

7. Making Sense of Allergies is published with support from medical charities and clinicians who seeing these problems first hand, and researchers and learned societies working in the area of allergies:

British Society for Immunology http://www.immunology.org The BSI represents scientists and clinicians who study the immune system, including allergies. They support and promote excellence in research and clinical practice in immunology for the benefit of human and animal health and welfare.

Cochrane UK

Cochrane is a not-for-profit, global independent network of researchers, professionals, patients, carers and people interested in health. Cochrane Reviews are systematic reviews of primary research in human health care and health policy and are used internationally as a trusted source to inform evidence-based health care. They are published online, in the Cochrane Library. http://www.cochranelibrary.com

TODAY "Allergies: treatment and prevention" is also launched. This Cochrane Library Special Collection brings together recent systematic reviews of the evidence for treating and preventing allergies: http://bit.ly/Cochrane_Allergy_Treatment_and_Prevention_review

British Society for Allergy & Clinical Immunology http://www.bsaci.org With 800 members specializing in allergy, immunology and paediatrics, ENT, dermatology and respiratory medicine, BSACI seeks to improve allergy care thorough, education training and research.

Allergy Academy

The King's College London Allergy Academy seeks to provide education in allergy to everyone who wants it; they provide tailored information.

Allergy UK

A UK charity that provides information, advice and support for people with allergic disease and their carers.

Anaphylaxis Campaign

Provide information and support to people at risk of serious allergic reactions and anaphylaxis, focusing on medical facts, food labeling, risk reduction and allergy management.

Asthma UK

Work across the UK. They fund world class asthma research, campaign to improve the quality of care received by people with asthma and help hundreds of thousands of people a year with their expert advice and support.

8. Voice of Young Science members, Dominic, Chelsea and Jess, have been myth-busting allergy tests and treatments as part of the Ask for Evidence campaign. See their short blogs about hunting for the evidence behind claims of allergy products, tests and treatments: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/allergyteststreatments.html

9. On Monday 8th June Sense About Science is teaming up with Mumsnet, and all of the organisations that have partnered Making Sense of Allergies, by opening a Q&A to answer questions on allergies, ranging from causes to testing and treatments. Questions from the general public will be put to allergy experts and published on Monday 22th June.

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