ABU DHABI // A lack of awareness about anaphylaxis means devices used to inject the drug that treats it are not widely available in the UAE, a situation that could have deadly consequences, a local expert on allergies said.
Anaphylaxis is a severe reaction created when the body releases chemicals to fight an allergen. It is most commonly caused by insect stings, foods such as peanuts and shellfish, and medications. The seriousness of the reaction can vary, but in certain cases it can cause sudden death if the anaphylaxis is not treated. Epinephrine is the drug used to treat severe allergic reactions. It is usually administered by an auto-injector device commonly referred to by the brand name EpiPen.
But EpiPens can be hard to come by. Not all hospitals in the country have them, a situation that needs to change, said Dr Bassam Mahboub, vice president of the UAE Allergy and Respiratory Society. "Because the awareness about allergies and anaphylaxis is not there, the necessary medication is not there," he said. "It should be available in all private pharmacies as food allergies are very common. People should have access to it with a prescription."
The society has conducted a number of workshops and lectures to educate general practitioners and specialists about allergic reactions, but many still do not know the signs and symptoms. "More needs to be done," Dr Mahboub said. "It needs to be wider awareness." According to doctors, what used to be an almost unknown condition is on the rise worldwide, including in the UAE, and they are calling for contingency measures in schools along with a general awareness campaign.
Dr Mahboub said the rise in allergies in the Emirates is consistent with a global trend. The hygiene hypotheses, he said, is one of the main contributing factors to the increase in allergies. Cleaner lifestyles have caused a shift in the function of the immune system, which is designed to fend off viruses and bacteria as well as identifying other foreign substances as allergens. But with vaccines and other measures that prevent children's immune systems from becoming expert at fighting off viruses and bacteria, the immune systems are developing a greater tendency to identify allergens.
"The trend shows an increase in allergies but we do not have the exact figures," Dr Mahboub said. "Cleaner lifestyles mean we are skewing our immune system from its original function of fighting bacteria and viruses." According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, more than three million people in the US say they are allergic to peanuts, tree nuts or both. Food allergies there affect about six per cent of children younger than three years old, and children with a food allergy are two to four times more likely to have allergy-related conditions such as asthma, the academy claims.
Dr Carlos Mateluna, from the American Hospital Dubai, said anaphylaxis was on the increase in the UAE and the region as more western lifestyles were adopted, making it more common in young people now than it had been in their parents' and grandparents' generations. People were now following completely different diets from those of their parents, he said, and were exposed to a range of environmental factors that had not existed before.
"I have many patients with anaphylaxis, the most common cause being, like everywhere else in the world, food allergy," he said. "Many of these patients face enormous difficulties in their daily lives, and must restrict their activities as a result of their allergies." Dr Mahboub said all forms of allergies were on the rise but that until more research was done it would be impossible to know the extent of the problem in the UAE.