Select Committee on Science and Technology Sixth Report


Allergy in the United Kingdom has now reached epidemic proportions, with new, more complex and potentially life threatening allergies. Allergic disorders can seriously impair quality of life for sufferers, and in some cases, can even lead to death. Their treatment is a significant cost to the National Health Service, and they can have a detrimental impact upon the education of children at school or the performance of adults at work. The burden of allergy is borne by the allergic individual on a daily basis, but the social and economic cost extends across the whole nation.

There is a severe shortage of allergy specialists in the United Kingdom, so the clinical services lag far behind those of many countries in Western Europe, and have not kept pace with the rising prevalence of allergy. Problems with data collection mean that statistics are imprecise, and a lack of training has resulted in a National Health Service in which a significant proportion of general practitioners are unable to diagnose and manage allergic disorders, and have nowhere to refer patients with complex allergies.

The development of the immune system in the first months of life—and the role of early exposure to allergens such as peanuts—urgently requires further research to ensure that public policies are underpinned by sound scientific evidence. There is a lack of evidence-based research which has resulted in poor public information on the everyday factors which allergy sufferers may encounter, such as food and its labelling, housing conditions and methods used by complementary practitioners.

We have made a number of specific recommendations on allergy services. We recommend that allergy centres led by a full-time allergist should be developed, where various specialists with an interest in allergy come together to diagnose and manage patients with complex allergic disorders. These allergy centres should be a source of education and training for doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers at every grade, to improve the knowledge of those working within the primary and secondary care sectors. They should also advance research, enabling effective treatments to be developed, and should provide the clinical database required for epidemiological studies. Clinicians within the allergy centre should work together with local schools, employers, charities and others to educate the general public, and particularly patients and their families, on allergy matters.

But NHS allergy services are only part of the story and we have also made a number of other recommendations covering a broad range of issues. These include: maintaining clinical surveillance systems to monitor allergic disease; calling for further research into the ways in which the indoor environment influences allergy development; reviewing how children with hayfever are supported throughout the examination system; assessing the training that teachers receive in dealing with allergic emergencies; assisting individuals with occupational allergies to return to work; amending food labelling legislation to specify the amount of allergens contained within products; analysing the costs and benefits of immunotherapy treatment; and withdrawing advice which recommends peanut avoidance for pregnant women. But all our recommendations must be underpinned by effective education and training of those involved at every level.

We call on the Government and all those involved in supporting people with allergy, to address these issues to improve patients' quality of life, tackle the rising prevalence of allergy in the future, and reduce the significant burden of allergy in the United Kingdom.

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