Imagine sending your child off to school each morning with the knowledge they're going into a potentially life-threatening situation.

Or imagine as an adult, feeling like you're taking your life into your hands every time you eat something you didn't make yourself - a takeaway, say, or a restaurant meal.

This is the reality for people living with food allergies.


I'm not talking here about intolerances or preferences. This is not about a self-diagnosed thing where you feel bloated after eating bread. Food allergies are real, severe and, in some cases, deadly immune system responses to foods - and their incidence is growing. It's estimated one in 10 infants and one in 20 older children in New Zealand is affected, some with allergies to multiple foods.

It's hard to imagine how stressful this can be for sufferers or their parents. When someone with a severe food allergy is exposed to a food they're allergic to – and it doesn't even have to be by eating it – they have what's known as an anaphylactic reaction.

The body's immune system goes into overdrive, flooding it with histamines designed to fend off the perceived attack. Histamines cause tissues to swell - the airways close up and circulation slows. People struggle to breathe and may feel dizzy and faint. This reaction can happen within minutes of contact with the food.

EpiPens, used by people with anaphylactic allergies, available in NZ. Photo / Dean Purcell
EpiPens, used by people with anaphylactic allergies, available in NZ. Photo / Dean Purcell

Now imagine being in that state – or witnessing a child in that state – and having to administer treatment.

Imagine having to pull out a syringe, a needle and a vial of adrenalin - breaking the glass vial top, measuring the dose, drawing up the adrenalin into the syringe, then injecting yourself or your child – all within minutes of the reaction starting. It sounds like a nightmare, right?

And yet that's what many families and individuals with food allergies are faced with if they don't have an EpiPen – the auto-injector for adrenalin that's designed for non-medical people to use quickly in an anaphylaxis emergency. The EpiPen is pretty foolproof – it can be used by the allergic person themselves, or by a bystander or parent. It can be, literally, the difference between life and death.

As many as one in 10 children have severe allergies. Photo / Supplied
As many as one in 10 children have severe allergies. Photo / Supplied

EpiPens are expensive, costing between $120 and $200 each – and only last for a year. They need to be vigilantly replaced in order to be on hand at all times. And the government drug funding body Pharmac does not fund EpiPens for the thousands of Kiwis with food allergies. The only thing funded is the $1 vial of adrenalin in the needle/syringe scenario (although the needle and syringe are not funded).

For some families, EpiPens are a cost they struggle to afford, especially when there's more than one allergic person in a household. Children typically need two or three EpiPens: one for home, one for school and potentially one for sport or other activities. This situation, according to experts at Allergy New Zealand, is ridiculous and potentially fatal.


Food allergy is an expensive condition to live with day to day. But it shouldn't cost lives.

Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large for Healthy Food Guide