Children with allergies 'being let down'

Image caption Doctors are missing out on allergy training

Everyone knows someone with an allergy - and an incredible 40% of UK children have either asthma, eczema, hay fever or a food allergy.

But in this week's Scrubbing Up, Dr Adam Fox, a child allergy specialist at Guys' & St Thomas' Hospitals argues there are too few specialists to deal with them.

The UK leads the world when it comes to prevalence of allergic disease.

More of our children are suffering from asthma, eczema, hay fever and food allergy than ever before.

However, despite these worryingly high figures, provision of NHS services for allergy remains seriously lacking

This has been recognised and documented by both the relevant royal colleges as well as the government - yet still the number of allergy specialists in the UK pales in comparison to virtually every other country in the developed world.

We are letting our children down.

A lack of specialists means a lack of the basic resource required to educate doctors in training and as a result, the overwhelming majority of medical students qualify without ever having received any training about identifying or managing conditions such as food allergy and intolerance.

And this is worrying because of the numbers involved - food allergy affects around 8% of infants and over a third of parents suspect their child has a food allergy.

The impact is obvious - parents find their doctors and health visitors offering conflicting information as to the cause of their child's illness, often having their concerns about allergy dismissed.

When they inevitably turn to the internet they are faced with a minefield of conflicting information, littered with unproven diagnostic tests.

So business has never been better for a whole range of complimentary and alternative therapists, who are happy to fill the vacuum left by the lack of NHS provision.

Spotting signs

One of the most common food allergies seen in children is milk allergy, but this can also be a cause of confusion to parents and doctors alike.

For some infants, a milk allergy can't be missed - as soon as the baby has infant formula he develops hives and swelling, but for others the reaction is delayed and causes chronic symptoms.

Eczema, reflux, colic, diarrhoea and even constipation may be caused by an underlying milk allergy. With all of these symptoms common, it takes an educated and experienced eye to tease out which children need to change their diet to help them feel better, rather than being subject to increasing medication and investigations coupled with significant parental anxiety.

To complicate things further, reactions to milk may not involve the immune system at all and simply be an intolerance; most commonly to lactose, the main sugar found in milk.

We need to take the problem seriously and commit the time and resources to it.

GPs need to be given the tools to recognise allergic disease early and know how to diagnose and manage it or at least know when to refer on.

The recent NICE guidance on food allergy is a good first step but until medical students are properly taught about allergies, patients will get a raw deal.

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites