All Black urges allergy sufferers to play it safe

All Black Kees Meeuws is fronting an Allergy New Zealand poster campaign urging allergy sufferers to play it safe and protect a life as part of Allergy Awareness Week, which kicks off May 10, 2004. The poster sports a bare-chested and tattooed Kees with his six-week-old daughter, Inéz (who is now three months old).

The "play it safe - protect a life" message aims to raise public awareness that food allergies are life threatening for many. They are not easy to live with - it means complete avoidance of that food, as even the smallest amounts can trigger a severe or fatal reaction.

The 183cm prop is one of 90,000 Kiwis who suffer from a food allergy, of which symptoms can include hives, eczema, swelling of the lips, tongue, face and other parts of the body; shortness of breath, wheezing, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, hay fever symptoms, and anaphylaxis - a life-threatening reaction requiring emergency treatment and hospital care. Sufferers often carry a life-saving injection of adrenaline, EpiPen, with them at all times.

Luckily, Kees's allergies to tomato and potato and his intolerance to milk are not too severe. He still practises complete avoidance as even small amounts can trigger hay fever symptoms and make him feel sluggish and lethargic, which isn't conducive to playing good rugby.

"It's really hard. You've got to be aware of what foods are out there. I try to avoid these foods, like with sporting teams, but it's really hard because whenever you go away they prepare food in bulk," he says.

Kees says his rugby game has improved tremendously since he had his allergies diagnosed, and those team members who scoffed at what they saw as pickiness with food are now completely convinced his food allergies are real.

Allergy New Zealand's chief executive Natalie Lloyd says the not-for-profit organisation is working hard to make the public more aware of the dangers of food allergies.

"While there are many people who are doing the right thing, there are even more out there who are either not getting the correct advice, or who are being blasé about something that is potentially life-threatening."

Food allergies have a huge impact on the everyday life of sufferers. Other than the obvious medical costs, there are everyday issues such as grocery shopping. Because sufferers have to check food labels each time, every time, shopping can take three times as long.

This is something Kees is familiar with. "We do read labels. But now we know what we're looking for and there are no more impulse buys. If we do come across something new, we read the labels carefully. My wife is a lot more diligent and she has to look out for our daughter as well."

Kees isn't the only one in his family with a food allergy. His wife, Juanita, is allergic to soy and peanut, and his two-year-old daughter Eva is allergic to soy and dairy. As a result of these multiple allergies, the Meeuws family has three different types of milk in their fridge - rice milk, soy milk and cow's milk!

Allergy New Zealand is working hard to provide accurate, up-to-date, quality information to educate and support people with food allergies.

"Education is the key - we can save lives by ensuring that people know that just a tiny bit can hurt," says Lloyd. "The more people who are aware of the potential dangers surrounding food allergies, the more we can help to improve the quality of life of those who are affected and reduce the number of life-threatening reactions."

"Despite the fact so many people suffer from food allergies, and it's a trend that is increasing, New Zealand is behind the rest of the world in terms of providing adequate health services."

"Anyone with a food allergy should have it diagnosed properly and ideally by an allergy specialist, but there are only six in the country," Lloyd explains. In the UK it is mandatory for GPs to refer anyone with a peanut allergy to an allergy specialist; this is just not possible here when we don't have the resource to back up such a policy.

These specialists are in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington, which has huge health and financial implications for allergy sufferers living outside these centres.

Those who are able to see a specialist are usually on a nine-month waiting list.

On top of this, allergy medication doesn't come cheap. For those with life-threatening allergies, an auto-injector of adrenaline must be carried at all times. These retail for $145 - and two are recommended.

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