Jo Abi - Food Allergy Mum Interview Series May 18, 2017 10:28

Food Allergy Week May 14-20, 2017

Australian children have the highest recorded rate of food allergies in the world. One in 10 babies born in Australia today will develop a food allergy. As, Food Allergy Week coincides with Mother's Day this year we are highlighting the awesome work of Aussie Food Allergy mums and advocates.

Australia has the unfortunate title of "Food Allergy Capital of the World". Hospital admissions for severe allergic reactions quadrupled in the last 20 years, while alarmingly the number of allergy-related deaths in Australia is increasing by 10 per cent each year. 

Food Allergy Week, May 14-20 is an initiative of Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia to raise awareness of food allergies in Australia.

In our Food Allergy Mum Interview Series, we hope to promote understanding and insight in to the challenges of parenting a child with life threatening food allergies, along with the need for change to build an allergy aware allergy safe commUNITY!

Jo Abi, Writer & Social Commentator

What are your child’s allergies? When did you find out?

My son Philip, 13, is allergic to egg and nuts. I found out when he was just five months old and had his first reaction after licking my finger when I had been eating schnitzel. I suspected egg but it took another reaction and skin prick testing for him to be diagnosed with anaphylactic food allergies.

What would be one of the most difficult aspects of daily living with food allergies Or one of the biggest challenges raising a child with food allergies

The fear is the most difficult part, knowing just one mouthful of the wrong food could kill him in minutes. Also the fact he is now a teenager and not always with me. It was easier when I controlled every move he made and every bite he took. Now I have to trust that he has learned enough to manage them himself. He's very allergy aware and sometimes remembers his EpiPen pack without me reminding him!

How important is the support of friends, family, and community?

It's very important because his friends look out for him and are EpiPen trained in the event he has a serious reaction and can't inject himself. They also sometimes slap food out of his hand until they check the ingredients for him! My mum and sister changed some family recipes so we can all eat together safely. And the support of other allergy mums has helped so much because people still treat us like paranoid idiots! Um sorry, just trying to keep my son alive.

What would you like other people to know about caring for a child with food allergies?  How can families who don’t live with food allergies be extra safe around your food allergic child?

I want them to know that we didn't choose this. He was born with this. It is an illness, one we have very little control over, an illness that can kill him. There is no cure. We need more sympathy and understanding. Also be allergy aware. Have lots of options for foods at events, keep packages so it's easy to check ingredients and communicate. We are more than happy to bring safe food if it's too hard or confusing to organise for us.

Do you have a proud mum moment (of your food allergic child?) that you would like to share?

Definitely. My son is undergoing food sensitivity training for egg. He has to eat a small amount each day to try and desensitise himself to it. It's uncomfortable and scary but he is being very brave. This is all under medical supervision and won't be an option with the nuts but if we can desensitise him to egg, even a little, we buy him more time in the event of a serious reaction.

What would be one piece of advice for parents who have a child with new food allergy diagnosis?

Talk to other allergy mums. Also do whatever makes YOU comfortable, what you feel keeps your child safe. Don't listen to anyone calling you paranoid or a helicopter parent. You know to trust your instincts and you will figure it out. You and your entire family are in it together and you can do it. Join all the Facebook groups. We are here for you.

Think of it much like teaching children how to cross the road. You are keeping them safe and teaching them and their siblings and family and friends as well

Do you have a favourite, safe for your family, recipe or meal idea to share? What's one of the first recipes you taught your kids to make?

Yes, our go-to is definitely dry pasta. It's so easy. Dry pasta (not fresh due to egg and not egg pasta due to...egg). With a lovely tomato sauce. Allergy friendly and easy to leave off cheese for kids with dairy allergies. We make lots so we can have it for breakfast as well!

How can we raise food allergy awareness in our communities?

All food service providers, educators and anyone who comes into contact with children needs to be trained in food allergy management, including those who are in the food service industry for adults. Mistakes happen, we understand that, but we all need to do whatever we can to prevent attacks and we all need to know that if someone stops breathing after taking a bite of food look for an EpiPen pack or grab one from a first aid kit (all first aid kits should have one) and administer it! Time is of the essence. 

Thanks for being a hardworking food allergy awareness advocate, and an inspiration. What inspires you?

What inspires me is every single story of an unnecessary death. It frustrates me because it always happens at a school camp or at a restaurant, at places where people should know better and be more aware. My son inspires me. We try and think positively and have a bit of a sense of humour about it. At least he's not allergic to chocolate! Some people are. And my allergy mum friend who taught me to release the fear as much as possible, saying, "If something happens, it happens. We'll deal with it." Wise, wise words.

Food allergies are on the increase in Australia and as with any other condition that results in death, we all need to be in it together. It's not an us vs them situation. I am continually staggered by how that is the case. You'd push my son out of the way of a car if it was about to hit him. Food allergy management is the exact same thing. 

 Abi currently writes for and appears regularly on the Nine Network as a social commentator on Today, Today Extra and A Current Affair. She has three children, one of whom has food allergies, one who has autism and a daughter who makes incredible messes in the name of arts and crafts. Jo is working towards her Master of Children's Literature at Macquarie University having already gained her Master of Creative writing. She hopes for a cure for food allergies, acceptance for autism and true universal equality for one and all by the time her daughter is grown.