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Allergy Today: The Impact of COVID-19 on your Allergy Management

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Thanks to everyone who responded to our recent survey during Allergy Awareness Week.

The survey was the result of feedback we had received from members and readers about their allergy-related experiences during the 2020 lockdowns. We felt it was important to gather data so we could advise policymakers and businesses about how to better support those living with allergies in similar circumstances.

Who were the respondents?

  • Most (65%) came from Auckland, Bay of Plenty, Capital & Coast (Wellington) and Nelson-Marlborough DHB regions.
  • 100% of responses were on behalf of households with people aged between 16 and 60 years of age; 80% were in households with at least one child under 16 years of age.
  • All reported allergies, with nearly all (98%) having at least one member in the household with food allergy. 80% also reported household members with hayfever, 71% with asthma, and 61% with eczema.
  • Of those with food allergy, the most common was ‘tree nuts’ (70%) followed by peanuts (67%), eggs (52%) and milk (45%)
  • Some also reported other conditions, such as allergy to bee/wasp venom, and non-IgE-mediated food allergy such as eosinophilic esophagitis.

What we found:

  1. Nearly a quarter of respondents had the experience of allergy symptoms (mainly runny nose, sneezing and cough) being confused by others with COVID-19 symptoms. Some (23%) commented that, because of these symptoms, they had had to have a COVID-19 test.
  2. Most (73%) were able to access medical treatment with 20% saying they didn’t need access. Of the remainder, they either couldn’t see a specialist or GP, or were restricted to phone or video consult which they felt was unsatisfactory. Many respondents commented that they were able to stock up with medications; although there were some issues with delays in courier deliveries for EpiPens at Level 4 lockdown.
  3. Most (93%) did not require emergency treatment for an allergic reaction. However, some respondents reported having anaphylaxis.
  4. In relation to food allergies, one in 10 (10%) reported problems with accessing safe/suitable food. This was mainly due to shortages of stock in supermarkets where the usual ‘safe’ brands had sold out and there were no alternatives. Several commented they were unable to get safe/suitable bread or milk; and restricted to ‘two per customer’ on some essential products. There were also issues with checking allergen content in food bought online. Anaphylaxis was reported due to undeclared allergens, e.g. in food ordered online, or due to changing normal food brands because of lack of stock.

Recommendations:

Many respondents made recommendations on ways to improve support for those with allergies. These include:

Medications

  • Several respondents recommended keeping scripts up-to-date and checking stock regularly.

Food

  • Under Level 4, while supermarkets were able to stay open, smaller food-speciality shops, e.g. for gluten-free products, weren’t available in some areas. “They should be able to stay open in the future,” one respondent commented.
  • “Food allergy should be recognised as a disability in a similar situation, and support for all those with disabilities be given priority” was another comment. For example, a respondent reported being able to apply to Countdown for a special consideration, which helped as they were allowed to buy more of certain foods than the "two per customer" automatic rule that was being applied. Another suggested reserved shopping times be allocated to those with special needs (such as food allergies). It was also suggested that certain allergen-free foods e.g. gluten-free flour, be reserved for people who could prove they needed them e.g. with a doctor-diagnosed special dietary need.
  • Another recommendation was to keep more in stock (at home) of basics like special flours, plant milks etc.
  • There was also a concern that if there is an emergency evacuation, there wouldn't be suitable food for their child with food allergies; and for emergency management (e.g. Civil Defence) to consider food allergies.

Other Allergies

  • One respondent was concerned at having to stay home where they were exposed to a lot more allergens, whereas their work-space had good ventilation and filters.

We will be passing the results of the survey to the Ministry of Social Development. They supported the survey and are now reviewing their response to marginalised communities as a result of the COVID-19 lockdowns. We hope this information will contribute meaningfully to their planning.

The specific needs of our allergy community in such circumstances must be much better managed.

16 July 2021
Allergy Today