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House of Lords Press Release

Embargo: 00:01 Wednesday 26 September 2007
Contact: Owen Williams 020 7219 8659

NEW NETWORK OF NHS SPECIALIST ALLERGY CENTRES NEEDED - LORDS SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COMMITTEE

In a report published today the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee argue that allergy in the UK is reaching epidemic proportions and the Government must now recognise the severity of the problem and take concrete steps to tackle it. A lack of specialist clinics, and minimal allergy training within medical curricula, mean that services for allergy patients in the UK lag far behind those of many other Western European countries.

The Committee recommend that an allergy centre, headed by a full time allergy specialist, is established in every Strategic Health Authority. These centres would act as clusters of expertise and should include medics from various specialties with an interest in allergy. This would encourage a patient centred approach to allergy treatment and avoid the costs and inconvenience of multiple visits to different hospitals which those with multi-system allergic disease often have to undergo. The Committee observed similar approaches whilst visiting allergy clinics in Germany and Denmark which employed various specialists and made good use of immunotherapy to manage allergy effectively.

The Committee looked at allergy services across England and stress that the North and South-West of England in particular suffer from very poor allergy services. They recommend that the Government should redress this by establishing the first new allergy centre in conjunction with an SHA outside of London and the South East.

The report also raises concerns about the ability of GPs and others without specialised training to correctly diagnose and treat complex allergies. The Committee recommend that the Royal Colleges should work more closely together to ensure undergraduate medical students are adequately trained in allergy treatment. They also suggest that medical training bodies should co-operate to establish generic clinical post-graduate courses in allergy for doctors, nurses and other medical practitioners.

The Committee make a specific recommendation that current Government guidance, which advises some pregnant women and young children to avoid peanuts, should be immediately withdrawn. The Committee point out that this advice is now out of date and heard evidence to suggest that abstinence from peanuts during pregnancy and early life may actually increase the risk of developing peanut allergy. Members therefore recommend the Government revoke its advice and undertake a comprehensive review of the effect of peanut exposure on the young child.

The report also identifies the need to carry out further research into the underlying causes of the 'allergy epidemic', such as diet, the role of air quality and other environmental factors.

With regards to food labelling the Committee argue that current warnings are often 'vague and defensive' and lead to confusion and an unnecessary restriction of choice. They argue the common 'may contain nuts' labelling approach should be replaced by one that clearly specifies the amount of each allergen contained within the product.

The report also questions the provisions in schools for children with allergies. The Committee point out that many teachers and support staff are not properly trained in how to deal with allergic emergencies. With the incidence of allergies among children rising this is seen as inadequate. The report recommends that the Department for Children, Schools and Families should audit the level of allergy training school staff receive and should take urgent action to improve the training where necessary. The Committee suggests the Government should review the case for schools holding one or two generic auto-injectors and should support schools in using them to treat children suffering from anaphylactic shock. The Committee were also concerned that most examinations are held during the summer months when the performance of hayfever sufferers is severely impaired, whilst immunotherapy treatment, which can effectively manage the symptoms of hayfever, is not widely available.

The Committee draws attention to a wide range of everyday factors which can impact upon allergy sufferers. The environment in which we work and live can contribute to the development or exacerbation of allergic disorders, and simple tasks such as eating out or buying cosmetics can present serious risks. The Committee urges the Government to improve training for those in the catering sector to ensure allergens are handled appropriately, and suggests more should be done to educate food-allergic teenagers about the dangers of eating out.

Allergic disorders have a large economic impact, as those with an occupational allergy can remain unemployed for long periods of time. The report recommends that further work is required to prevent occupational allergic disease and calls on the Government to review the way in which workers are assisted into alternative employment.

Commenting Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, Chairman of the Sub-Committee that conducted the inquiry, said:

" Allergies are an ever growing problem in the West and are now reaching epidemic proportions. They can impair people's quality of life and in extreme cases can even lead to death.

"We have a severe shortage of expert medical provision to deal with allergies in the UK. The Government must now take steps to deal with that problem by establishing a specialist allergy centre in every Strategic Health Authority. These would act as a beacon of good practice and ensure new knowledge about allergies was spread and applied across the NHS.

" We have serious doubts about the advice given to some pregnant women to avoid eating peanuts. A growing body of evidence suggests that in countries where peanuts form a major part of the diet of pregnant women and young children there is actually a lower incidence of peanut allergy in later life. The Government should withdraw this advice with immediate effect."

Notes to Editors

1. The report 'Allergy', is available from The Stationery Office, House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, Sixth Report of 2006/07, HL Paper 166.

2. The report will be available online shortly after publication at: www.parliament.uk/hlscience

3. The members of the Committee that produced the report are:

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (Chair)
Lord Broers
Lord Colwyn
Lord Haskel
Lord May of Oxford
Baroness Platt of Writtle
Baroness Perry of Southwark
Lord Rea
Earl of Selborne
Viscount Simon
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
Lord Taverne