Just one bite could be deadly for food-allergy sufferers
AUSTRALIA has one of the highest reported incidences of food allergies in the world and one-in-10 babies born in Australia today will develop a food allergy.
Nine years ago when my second child was born, I knew little about food allergies.
My seven-month-old was irritable, unsettled, had mild eczema and refused to sleep day or night.
Exhausted, I decided to enrol him in childcare so I could rest but when the big day arrived, I couldn't leave him.
This was a blessing in disguise or maybe mother's intuition because at nine months, he was diagnosed with food allergies to seven foods.
If I had sent him to childcare that day, it may of resulted in an anaphylactic reaction if he had been exposed to any of the foods he was allergic to.
Today, Thai's remaining allergies are milk, egg, dust and cat, he also has VKC (Vernal Keratoconjunctivitis, an allergic eye disease) and asthma.
Many families struggle getting their child diagnosed, especially if breastfeeding. I saw seven health professionals before Thai was finally diagnosed with food allergies.
Nine years later, I work exclusively educating children and anyone interested to learn about food allergies.
While the original aim of my educational book series was to educate young children with allergies by teaching simple ways to stay safe, I now also focusses on educating others including children, families and educators.
After Thai's diagnosis, I knew I had to teach him about his allergies but, as I soon realised, it was not just my son who needed educating. Everyone in contact with him also needed to become food allergy smart.
So I created My Food Allergy Friends: a series of educational books to help children learn to live with allergies.
Each book covers multiple allergens and contains sufficient information without overwhelming children.
The delightful images and lovable book characters of Thai and Rabbie teach young children about allergies as readers follow their adventures and discover life with food allergies.
The books present easily understandable ideas such as appreciating that some food we eat can make others sick, and that if some children eat certain foods, they get sick and may need special medicine to make them better.
We also teach children to say: "No, danger food!".
It's a term toddlers can readily understand. It's like teaching them not to touch a hot oven by saying: "No, hot oven!".
Text throughout the books is colour-coded, with red indicating danger foods and green indicating safe foods.
My books feature normal, everyday situations children face, such as when a child with allergies attends a birthday party, when they are away from home, start kindy or their first day of school.
Thai and Rabbie teach children that having food allergies doesn't stop you from joining in and having fun.
When Thai attends a birthday party, he takes his own party food, birthday cake and has his own safe lollies to eat. Most children will soon grasp this concept and will want to help keep their friends safe.
My latest book is Thai's First Ambulance Ride.
The story discusses Thai's first anaphylactic reaction and readers will learn not only how to prevent an allergic reaction but also how to reassure a child accidentally exposed to allergens.
Children need reassurance of what is likely to happen after an allergic reaction.
With one-in-10 children currently diagnosed with a food allergy in Australia, there are likely to be one or two children enrolled at most centres who have serious, life-threatening allergies.
Thai's school currently has 22 children who require EpiPens.
The biggest challenge has to be when a child starts school.
Even at a school with 22 children with EpiPens, your child's first year can be difficult.
I believe no parents should have to battle to ensure life-saving medicine is kept in the classroom, or justify why a four-year-old can't carry a medical device.
I also feel strongly that no child should be excluded in the classroom because they have allergies.
Allergy education needs to be in every school and childcare centre.
The Food Allergy Smart Program is helping support children and parents.
Raising a child with food allergies means facing many challenges. I admit that my family faced challenges as Thai reached every developmental stage.
You teach young children not to put food they find in their mouths and not to share food, but as they grow older, other challenges arise.
Now he's older, Thai is mostly affected by the social impact of having allergies.
He just wants to do and have what all his friends are doing or eating. Having a safe cake means he can participate, but he still knows he is different and can't be as carefree as his peers.
Eating out is another challenge faced when you have a child with allergies.
One of my pet hates is when I ask if something is egg- and dairy-free and am told it's gluten-free.
That immediately sends a red flag up as I wonders how knowledgeable the café or restaurant staff are as regards food allergies, what training they have received if any, do they understand cross-contamination and if they have a process to segregate meals for a customer with life-threatening allergies.
After once trying to buy a simple slice of toast for Thai's breakfast, I finally had to provide the bread even after I'd phoned ahead to check the bread the restaurant served was milk-free.
On this occasion, the restaurant clearly had no system in place for serving a meal free of a particular allergen as staff added little tubs of butter on the plate, demonstrating they didn't understand how serious a milk allergy was.
Support from the community is crucial. With food being the focal point for many social occasions and celebrations, children with allergies are often excluded.
It's so easy to become food allergy aware.
Simple things like not sharing food, hand-washing after eating, and providing non-food treats means children with allergies can be included in celebrations.
If others stop and think about how it feels to have a food allergy, they are usually more than happy to help.
Families who don't live with food allergies can help others by being "food allergy smart".
I teach all children to be "food allergy smart" by using these five simple techniques.
1. Don't share food with people who have allergies.
2. Don't touch other people while eating.
3. Wash your hands after eating.
4. Tell an adult or teacher if your friend is having an allergic reaction.
5. Include your friends who have allergies.
Technique No.5 is especially important.
So many kids are excluded from parties, play dates, class celebrations and sleepovers. This has a big emotional impact on young children.
If you are caring for a child with allergies, whether you are a parent, grandparent or teacher, you need to understand the basics like reading labels, watching for the signs of an allergic reaction, understanding cross-contamination and the danger of hidden allergens.
Another piece of advice for parents is to not to treat their child differently.
Though having food allergies means parents need to pre-plan everything, don't let allergies define your child.
Always try to overcome problems together and give your child the skills and confidence to manage their own allergies as they grow.
As parents, we also need to speak up and push for change for our children.
Teachers and educators are not experts on food allergies. By working together, we can teach them how to keep our children safe.
It's all about team work. Work with your child's teacher each year to ensure safe routines, inclusiveness and help them risk-manage any planned activities out of the norm.
Share the Food Allergy Smart program by telling your childcare or school about resources and allergy sessions available that educate young children.
I am relieved that Thai now takes everything in his stride.
Last year, he underwent immunotherapy to dust, which entailed having weekly injections for 17 weeks. He now has monthly injections but has never complained once.
Another proud moment for me was when Thai realised his EpiPen wasn't with him at a specialist lesson at school. When the relief teacher wouldn't let him go back to the classroom to get it, Thai thought outside the box by asking another teacher to help him.
Thai knew how important it was to have his EpiPen at all times.
It must have been hard to challenge a teacher at a school of over 1000 students, but Thai knows the importance of his EpiPen and now self-advocates for his own allergies.
Since having his first anaphylaxis reaction to milk at age seven, Thai is excellent at remembering his EpiPen, along with recognising if something is different with his body.
If you ask him about his allergies, he really isn't that bothered. This is his normal.
Thai doesn't know what ice cream or pizza tastes like and that's okay. He still enjoys plenty of fresh, home-cooked meals and treats.
He wants other kids to know that allergies don't define you or stop you from following your dreams.
Even rock stars have allergies.
To find out more about Jackie's work go to www.myfoodallergyfriends.com
Jackie Nevard is a food-allergy awareness advocate, author and founder of a children's educational book series and the Food Allergy Smart Program. She runs allergy-awareness educational sessions aimed at all Australian children and has published books in eight countries. By navigating the challenges faced by any parent with a child with food allergies, Jackie has turned her knowledge and experience to advantage to help others.