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The Seafood Section

Shellfish and Fish Allergies Explored

A quick test: what’s the most widespread food allergy in North America today?

If you answered ‘peanut’, that’s incorrect. But you could hardly be blamed given that legume’s notoriety. The right answer is seafood – from fish to crustaceans and mollusks.

At a time when every “must-try” new restaurant is an over-priced sushi bar, an astounding 2.3 per cent of Americans are now allergic to one form or another of seafood. (There is no such specific Canadian data, but general rates of allergic prevalence are considered comparable.)

If that incidence comes as a surprise, however, you’re in good company. Even the researchers who surveyed 5,500 households for the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network in Virginia and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York to arrive at this finding were taken aback.

“We said, ‘can this be real?”‘ recalls Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and former CEO of FAAN and co-author of the resulting seafood prevalence study published in 2004. “We learned that shellfish and fish is about double the incidence of peanut and tree nut combined.”

In fact, the researchers reviewed the data to see if something was, well, fishy. But it wasn’t. Those who were accepted as allergic in the detailed phone survey “were very clear in their answers and the symptoms were very clear,” says Munoz-Furlong. Supporting those findings was a 15-nation study that showed similarly high levels of seafood allergies.

Shrimp was the most common cause of reactions in the FAAN-Mount Sinai survey. In fact, shellfish as a group – crustaceans and mollusks – proved by far the larger cul­prit, with 2 per cent of survey participants reporting shellfish allergy while 0.4 per cent reported fish.

Another eye-opening finding was that this is largely an adult phenomenon. The survey found 2.8 per cent of adults were seafood allergic compared to 0.6 per cent of children. And that can be one of the most difficult aspects of this condition – since it strikes grownups, who’ve been eating for years as they pleased, they often don’t know what hit them.

What happened to Chris Oleson is not uncommon. The 41-year-old is a self‑described “beach guy” who lives in San Francisco and grew up surfing on the California coast.

One day in 2002, he was with his wife Julia at an upscale sushi restaurant. He’d eaten about five or six very tasty” items from the trays on offer, when a waiter approached. “Sir, your ears are turning red. You may want to get that checked out,”‘ Oleson recalls him saying.

Oleson was suddenly rather feverish and unwell, but he wasn’t that concerned. He and his wife just thought he was com­ing down with a bug and had better get home. Oleson has asthma, and on the drive home an attack started coming on. He was also feeling woozy when Julia said, “you know, you’ve got hives.”

By the time they got through the door at a nearby hos­pital, Oleson was staggering. He lost consciousness on a stretcher.

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