Halloween is truly scary if a child has a nut allergy
Never mind the spooky costumes. Accepting treats from strangers is a real fright for some children
It is almost Halloween, traditionally the season of scary costumes, of apple bobbing and cracking nuts by the fire, and, if you are young, it is the season of trick or treating, which means roaming the streets in the dark en masse, collecting sweets from strangers and stuffing your face with them, often without your parents seeing exactly what you are eating.
Watching the cute squirrels in the park stuffing their little faces with nuts and scrambling up the trees, you could assume that nature intended us to binge on nuts in the autumn. But for the growing number of nut allergy parents, this season is a seriously scary time. Every three minutes, someone is hospitalised in America because of a food allergy, and the numbers are increasing all over the developed world.
More than 17 million Europeans have a food allergy, and hospital admissions for severe reactions in children have risen seven-fold over the past decade, according to the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. In Ireland, it is estimated that 5pc of children are affected by a food allergy, the most common being nuts, as well as milk, eggs and fish.
It is not easy to predict the severity of reactions. You could have been diagnosed with an allergy as a child, but have no reactions for a decade or more, and then one day you could have a fatal reaction.
Three years ago, Emma Sloan, who was 14, died on Dublin's O'Connell Street after mistakenly eating some peanuts in a sauce. Her mother, Caroline, said she was refused an adrenalin pen in a chemist because she did not have a prescription. Emma had been diagnosed as a child, but her mother said that she was not told that the allergy could be fatal, and Emma had only twice previously reacted to peanuts and on neither occasion severely.
Traces of nuts can remain in saliva for up to four hours. You don't have to eat the peanuts yourself to react. In 2012, 20-year-old Myriam Ducre-Lemay, from Montreal, was given the kiss of death when her new boyfriend, unaware that she had a peanut allergy, ate a peanut butter sandwich before kissing her. Because she had not told him about her allergy and because she did not have her adrenalin pen with her, she died of anaphylaxis symptoms, despite paramedics arriving within minutes of the 911 call.
A nut allergy can appear out of nowhere. One of my closest friends, who wishes to remain anonymous, was eating almonds at her desk when suddenly she felt a tickle in her throat. Luckily, a colleague noticed that she did not look well and called an ambulance. Within minutes, one arrived and she was given adrenalin and survived. She is over 30 and had never previously reacted to nuts.
Even those people who know that they are allergic, and who are careful to avoid nuts, cannot always be careful enough. In May of this year, Mohammed Zaman, an Indian restaurant owner from Yorkshire, was jailed for six years for manslaughter when Paul Wilson died after eating a chicken tikka masala that contained nuts, after having specifically requested no nuts.
And so, the tradition of going door to door, collecting strange sweets and other edibles from people you don't know is potentially life threatening for any child with a severe food allergy. And for anyone who doesn't yet know that their child is allergic, Halloween is a real-life horror show.
Anne Walsh, from Castlebar, is the mother of Aisling, who picked up a stray peanut from the floor when she was two and as soon as she ate it began to have breathing difficulties. Anne drove her to the hospital within 15 minutes, abandoning the car on the kerb, and Aisling was saved by an adrenalin injection, but she was almost unconscious by that time. Ten years later, Aisling is alive and well, but her mother tells me that her greatest fear now is that Aisling is about to start going to discos, where she will meet and possibly kiss boys.
"Teenagers are the highest risk group," according to Professor Jonathan Hourihane, consultant paediatric allergist at Cork University Hospital. 'They don't tell friends; they eat things that they know they shouldn't; they may be taking drugs or alcohol; and they are kissing strangers and hanging around with people who have no vested interest in their survival."
Anne's life now revolves entirely around the allergy, so much so that she has set up a website called Allergy Lifestyle to provide information and useful kit such as carrying cases for adrenalin pens, medical jewellery, information tags, as well as training for parents and anyone living with allergies.
"If somebody had told me when she was two all the stuff I know now, life would have been a whole lot easier," she tells me. She says that even when people have the adrenalin pens, in 60pc of cases they are afraid to use them in case they get it wrong, even though time is of the essence when someone is having a reaction.
There is some good news. Earlier this month, pharmacist Sarah Chambers, from Hickey's pharmacy in Grafton Street, saved the life of a 17-year-old girl who came in with symptoms of anaphylaxis after drinking a chocolate drink. Sarah had been trained to administer adrenalin, and gave two shots to the girl who made a complete recovery.
Caroline Sloan started a campaign to make adrenalin more widely available in emergencies and after she collected 160,000 signatures Leo Varadkar brought in new legislation, which will soon allow lay people to administer adrenalin shots after being certified following a training course. Anne Walsh, in particular, is excited by this news and her company will be among those delivering the training. According to Professor Hourihane, 70pc of reactions happen in public places such as restaurants and schools, so he is also keen for this legislation to be rolled out.
Do we need to be worried about nut allergies this Halloween? Anne says that she is not worried, but she does believe that the general public would benefit from knowing what the symptoms look like and how to deal with them.
Irish Food Allergy Network www.ifan.ie; www.allergylifestyle.com