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FOOD ALLERGY

The Food Allergy Deniers

“This is like the community that lives on the edge of the dormant volcano,” says John McGarr, managing director of Fresh Squeezed Ideas, of the adults at risk of anaphylaxis who don’t take precautions. “They know the thing can erupt, but yet they continue to live there.”

Koentges would fall into McGarr’s sub category of “diagnosed who don’t carry an auto-injector,” but back when he was a 5-year-old with a nut allergy that had just been confirmed, one was prescribed. “When I was young I did have an EpiPen, but we never carried it around,” he says. “If something happened, [my family] would call 911.”

In this he’s not alone either; McGarr and his colleagues found that many allergic adults cite the proximity to a hospital or easy access to 911 services as yet another reason not to ready themselves with an auto-injector.

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Like Koentges, Adev Ahluwalia is another whom allergists would dub “non-compliant”. A father of two and realtor working the hot Calgary housing market, he admits he doesn’t take his allergies “as seriously as I should.”

Of his auto-injector, Ahluwalia says: “I saw it the other day. But I don’t think it’s valid any more.” Besides, “I can’t remember if I’m supposed to punch it in my leg or, like in Pulp Fiction, stab the thing in my chest. I think it’s my leg.”

As a boy, Ahluwalia had minor reactions to cashews and pistachios, but only visited the doctor about his asthma, never about these allergy symptoms. Then in 2003, he had a significant allergic reaction at a friend’s 40th birthday party. He ate a chicken skewer, not realizing that there were nuts in the marinade. Soon his throat began to close, and he felt as if his chest and stomach were “knotted up.” He struggled to breathe.

The party was hosted by a doctor, and another physician friend named Paul watched over him, and kept asking whether he wanted to go the hospital rather than toughing it out. Ahluwalia declined; “I hate hospitals.” He figured he was better off anyway being watched by Paul.

But one thing Paul insisted on was that he get to a specialist “to find out exactly what you’re allergic to.” A Calgary allergist diagnosed an allergy to nuts, related to his sensitivity to the birch tree family, and including nuts, apples, cherries and peaches. Ahluwalia was prescribed and bought an auto-injector.

So why doesn’t he carry it? “I try not to take it [the allergy] too seriously, otherwise it would drive me and everyone else crazy,” he says.

McGarr finds the tendency of allergic adults to minimize the risks of anaphylaxis is common, and often accompanied by statements such as “I won’t let this control my life.” Tied into control is the belief that you can simply avoid your allergens.

Next: Most think they can just avoid their allergens 

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Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.