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Food allergies can kill you

By Flavia Nassaka

But doctor’s advice should be sought to rule out misconceptions

On March 10, the media fraternity woke up to the news of the death of Rebecca Vassie, a British photojournalist who has working in Uganda.  She succumbed to a food allergy as a result of eating food with nuts which sent her into shock.

An allergy is an abnormal response to food that is triggered by the immune system. It should not be confused with food intolerances since although both may manifest same symptoms. For example, being allergic to milk is different from not being able to digest it properly due to lactose intolerance.Symptoms of an allergic reaction may involve the skin, the gastrointestinal tract, the cardiovascular system and the respiratory tract. Allergy may cause shock, stomach aches, tongue swelling, hives, wheezing, repetitive cough, and trouble swallowing.

“The body’s immune system keeps you healthy by fighting infections and other dangers to good health. A food allergy reaction occurs when your immune system overreacts to a food or a substance in a food, identifying it as a danger and triggering a protective response in form of hives and body pains,” says Dr. Margret Musoke, a nutritionist.


However, Dr. Samson Muddu, another nutritionist, says a doctor’s advice should be sought in case an allergy is suspected to rule out misconceptions. He says intestinal parasite infections are sometimes mistaken for allergies because they at times manifest the same symptoms.  For example, worms such as nematodes once digested can lead to a reaction.Medical professionals say while allergies are a big health concern, the biggest segment of the public remains ignorant about what they are and how serious they can get.

Kabagenyi Awidah, 21, has had an allergy to milk ever since she was young. Before, she was only allergic to concentrated milk but could not be affected by diluted milk, ghee, or any other product made out of milk until last December when she was hospitalised after eating a wedding cake.

She developed bumps called hives all over her body and her tongue bulged to the extent that she could not breathe normally. The reaction was so severe that her normal rescue drug could not help.

Dr. Musoke says Awidah and Vassie suffered from a more severe allergic reaction. Technically called anaphylaxis, it is a life-threatening allergic reaction that can impair one’s breathing followed by a dramatic drop in blood pressure affecting the heart rate. This condition can only be reversed by immediate medical attention and can lead to death if treatment is not sought promptly since its onset is within a few minutes of exposure to the trigger food.    “Within a few minutes after food one is allergic to is digested, such symptoms as headache, stomach ache, vomiting or diarrhea start.

When the food allergens enter the bloodstream, they cause a drop in blood pressure or when they reach the skin, hives and skin rash could appear or when they reach the lungs, breathing becomes difficult leading to wheezing,” she explains.Fragments responsible for reactions (food allergens) are proteins within the food that remain unbroken down after cooking or by enzymes that digest food. As a result, they survive to come into contact with the gastrointestinal lining, enter the bloodstream, and go to target organs, causing allergic reactions.According to the World Health Organization (WHO), food allergies affect 5% of adults and 8% of children with growing evidence of increase in the prevalence.

At Mwanamugimu Nutrition Unit at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, 70% of all cases registered daily are to do with food allergies, according to Dr. Muddu. He says though the problem of food allergies is most prevalent among children aged four months to two years, they record a number of adults with similar complaints.Muddu points out that children are increasingly becoming allergic to food because they are no longer breastfed as recommended. Because mothers stay long hours away from home, the babies are introduced to feeds early on leading to reactions as they are deprived of numerous species of useful bacteria found in milk.

Whereas some can outgrow their allergies, the doctor says, others carry them into adulthood. This happens with foods like milk, eggs, groundnuts, meats and sea food that account for 90% of all reactions. He says, however, one can develop allergies at any stage in life.

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