annual general meeting
Our vision: a world where allergies no longer affect quality of life.
Our mission: to enhance the health and well being of people living with allergies by sharing current knowledge and expertise and leading positive change through being a strong and credible national voice.
February 2011 was Allergy New Zealand’s 30th anniversary as a patient-driven organisation. This is a milestone for any charity operating in New Zealand. The fact we have achieved 30 years of providing services and support to thousands of people is testament to the work of volunteers and supporters over three decades. This includes the founders and members of the Board, national support network, medical panel, and many others who have given their time, financial support and expertise.
The anniversary was celebrated by a Birthday Bash – the main event held at the Rocket Park in Auckland’s Mt Albert. Families were invited to share a day of fun activities for children, exhibitor displays and an ‘allergy-appropriate’ BBQ. Judged a success by all, despite the heat as Auckland’s warmest summer day of the year, it is likely to become an annual event.
However the occasion of a ‘0’ birthday usually involves some retrospection about what we have achieved, what we have still to do, and future opportunities. Thinking about what Allergy New Zealand has achieved, the most important measure is the difference it has made in the lives of the people it exists to serve – those whose lives are affected by allergies.
One area where Allergy New Zealand has made a notable difference is raising awareness of food allergies. When the organisation first started in 1981, food allergy was virtually unknown and frequently discounted by health professionals. Indeed in 2005 when Allergy New Zealand hosted world food allergy expert Professor Hugh Sampson on a nationwide education tour, he said he had set out to investigate food allergy to disprove it existed. Instead he had found that it was a significant paediatric condition which, as we now know, is responsible for poor health, social and psychological outcomes for children and their families if not diagnosed and managed effectively.
In 2005 food allergy was still relatively unknown in health circles in New Zealand. Most families had difficulty in getting their child’s condition properly diagnosed, let alone the clinical monitoring and support needed unless they went to a private specialist. Enrolling children at school was also challenging; some parents had to resort to claiming their child would die if the school didn’t ban all nuts, and media coverage was not always sympathetic – who can forget the Michael Laws debacle in 2006?
Finding safe food was also difficult. The upshot of mandatory labelling of the main food allergens from 2001 was that most packaged foods appeared to be labelled with precautionary statements: eg ‘may contain traces of peanuts’. The impression was of manufacturers protecting themselves. Not surprising then that individuals with food allergy, and parents, often felt they were regarded as over-anxious, maybe even neurotic, and they or their child’s condition not taken seriously.
Today the situation has much improved. For a start, paediatric allergy services can be accessed through outpatients services attached to paediatric clinics in a number of hospitals around the country. More and more general practitioners recognise the condition and refer patients for diagnostic tests and/or to specialists. Many more people are able to access information, education and support in a timely manner, which much improves their ability to manage food allergy effectively. It is standard now for staff in the majority of schools to receive training in the recognition and treatment of anaphylaxis. And food choices have improved as manufacturers have developed and implemented rigorous risk management procedures to allergen management in processing.
Of course Allergy New Zealand can’t claim credit for these outcomes on its own. Food allergy is recognised as a public health issue internationally through the huge amount of research that is being invested worldwide. But what we can claim credit for is helping to drive these issues in New Zealand so that others take note and action. For example, by organising Professor Sampson’s tour in 2005, arranging mail-outs and distributing our magazine ‘Allergy Today’ to 5000 health professionals every quarter, and hosting Royal New Zealand College of GPs accredited conferences and seminars, we have contributed to the increased knowledge and understanding of general practitioners and other health professionals.
In the education sector Allergy New Zealand first published guidelines for schools and early childhood services in 2006. It has promoted these through a variety of methods including direct mail to schools, seminars for staff and parents, training resources for public health nurses, Allergy Awareness Week campaigns, and submissions to and meetings with the Ministry of Education. As a result these guidelines are now utilised in many schools and early childhood services.
Also in 2005 Allergy New Zealand participated in the inaugural Food Allergen Forum hosted by the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC). The food industry recognised there were major issues with the labelling of allergens. Several areas of work were identified and sub-committees established to progress these. Allergy New Zealand has been involved as far as it has been possible given much of the activity has been based in Australia.
Our participation has included meetings, telephone conferences, design and distribution of surveys, presentations at seminars, reports, reviews and submissions. Consumers will already be benefitting from the results through many manufacturers having a greater understanding of allergen management and labelling with the help of the AFGC’s Allergen Bureau and Allergen Management and Labelling Guide. And the best is yet to come, with the launch, hopefully in the next few months, of a logo for VITAL (Voluntary Incidental Trace-Allergen Labelling). This will make it easier for food-allergic consumers to identify food labelled according to this standardised allergen risk assessment tool.
Finally, a very recent indication that food allergy has made its mark is the announcement of $2.4 million granted in July by the Health Research Council to the Wellington-based Malaghan Institute for research into food allergy (Cellular Mechanisms Underlying Food Allergen Sensitisation and Immunotherapy of Allergic Disease).
So how have we been able to achieve all this? First, a vital component of our work has been to ensure that everything we do is based on up-to-date, evidence-based information. To ensure this, we have worked closely with the members of our medical panel, the Australasian Society of Clinical immunology and Allergy (ASCIA), and our colleagues in the international Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Alliance.
We employed an experienced information officer to review and write sometimes complex research findings into comprehensible ‘lay’ language, develop and distribute information resources and work with the media. Increasingly over the past few years, we have taken advantage of the opportunities provided by information and communication technologies such as the internet and social media. And in May every year we hold an ‘Allergy Awareness Week’ and utilise the media as well as community, school and volunteer resources nationally.
New Zealand-based research has been extremely limited but for several years Allergy New Zealand has provided internship opportunities for third-year Bachelor of Health Science students from Auckland University’s School of Population Health. These students have developed and conducted surveys which have given us invaluable data, such as on management of anaphylaxis in schools and early childhood services, and the information needs of ‘new’ parents.
Allergy New Zealand has also promoted and/or conducted a number surveys including ones developed in association with the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Alliance (FAAA). In 2007 we surveyed ambulance services on the availability of adrenaline; there have been two surveys on food labelling in conjunction with Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ); and we have recently had an online airline survey available through our website in association with FAAA. All this data contributes to raising awareness, both through the process of promoting and collecting data, and the analysis and publication of findings.
Perhaps our major achievement in respect to research has been the project conducted in partnership with the Auckland District Health Board. The research team, headed by Associate Professor Rohan Ameratunga, conducted a survey in a number of Plunket clinics on adverse food reactions in young New Zealand children. The research findings were published in the NZ Medical Journal in December 2010.
Much of our work has been supported by philanthropic trusts, donors, members, sponsors and others who have helped with fundraising activities. In recent years our Honorary Ambassador Sir Peter Charles Leitch QSM has given us outstanding support through generous personal donations, organising fundraising events and raising awareness through his high profile. A current strategy is to work with major sponsors whose promotions (on products which have been assessed by Allergy New Zealand) will include Allergy New Zealand’s logo and website. This helps to increase awareness, not just of allergy but of Allergy New Zealand and our website as a first port of call.
Like the analogy of the duck floating serenely on the surface of the lake while furiously paddling below, there are also a lot of ‘conversations’ that happen, sometimes simply by being in the right place at the right time. These contribute to raising awareness through networking, and developing working relationships and partnerships.
So what are the things we want to achieve in the next few years? It is clear to see that allergic diseases are not going to go away anytime soon. There is a lot of evidence now, although little that is New Zealand-specific, of the burden this disease imposes. Therefore our Vision, Mission and Goals continue to provide our direction and framework. However we have to work within the constraints of a tight economic environment, which impacts not only on our own resources but that of the allergic population generally. A lot of our time is spent on raising the funds to do our work, and so at times we have to give priority simply to meeting the needs of people as they are today.
But regardless of financial and other pressures we continue to work (paddling underwater) on three key issues: funding for an auto-injector, allergy workforce and service development in the health sector, and programmes and services to alleviate particularly the social burden of allergy on individuals and families. We hope our members and supporters will continue to work with us on these endeavours.
Sue Egbers Penny Jorgensen
Chairman Chief Executive Officer
You can download our annual report here!