Serious allergic reactions to food among children stabilise since guideline changes

The rate of increase in serious allergic reactions to food among children has flattened since changes to Australian infant feeding guidelines, a new study has found.

The research, led by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) and the John James Medical Centre and published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, stated the rising rates of hospital admissions for food anaphylaxis (serious allergic reactions) had stabilised in young children and teenagers in Australia since 2008.

MCRI Professor Mimi Tang said the study was the first real-world evidence to show that updates to allergy prevention and infant feeding guidelines were having a measurable impact on the population prevalence of food anaphylaxis.

Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) infant feeding and food allergy prevention guidelines changed in response to published studies over the past 15 years, from a recommendation to 'delay' allergenic foods (1999 to 2007) to 'not delay' (2008) and then later to 'introduce early and often' (since 2016).

In the 1990s most guidelines recommended avoiding allergenic foods until age 1-3 years and avoidance of these foods in infancy became widespread. By 2008, this advice was removed in Australia and New Zealand based on increasing evidence that delaying allergenic foods had been associated with an increased food allergy risk. 

John James Medical Centre Dr Raymond Mullins said the rise in food allergy rates among Australian children appeared to have stabilised after a steady increase over several decades.

"Before 2008, we saw large year-on-year increases in admission rates, a bit like compound interest. But now we are seeing a flattening of the curve," he said.

"In children, aged 1 to 4 years, the yearly rate of increase dropped from 17.6 per cent a year between 1999 to 2007, to 6.2 per cent a year between 2008 to 2015 and then 3.9 per cent a year since 2016.

"A slowing in the rates of increase in food anaphylaxis admissions also occurred in those aged 5-14 years, born after the 2008 changes. These changes were not seen in older teens aged 15 and over who were born before 2008, who could not have benefited from the changing guidelines.

"Whilst we did see a spike in children aged less than one year, this is most likely due to earlier hospital presentations of pre-existing food allergy following introduction of allergenic solids in the first year of life."

The study examined national hospital admissions data for food anaphylaxis during three different time periods from 1998-1999 and 2006-2007, between 2007-2008 and 2014-2015 and between 2015-2016 and 2018-2019. A total of 37,132 anaphylaxis admissions were recorded over the timespan.

Professor Tang said it was important not to be complacent as overall food anaphylaxis hospital admission rates had still increased and there was an unmet need for effective treatments that could induce remission.

"The absence of an absolute drop in anaphylaxis admissions is disappointing, although it is possible that other environmental factors such as microbial exposures, diet and vitamin D levels may be driving the increased admission rates," she said.

"It's a positive sign that changes to Australasian guidelines have led to earlier introduction of common allergy-causing foods and that most parents have access to reliable advice. But even if early introduction of common allergy-causing foods partially reduces the risk of food allergy development, there will still be children who develop food allergy and many children and adults already have food allergy, so we need to also work towards finding effective treatments."

The results come after an MCRI led study last year also found changes to the guidelines had led to a 16 per cent decrease in peanut allergy among infants and noted a significant increase in parents introducing peanut into their babies' diet.

Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia A&AA CEO Maria Said stated through the National Allergy Strategy (a partnership between ASCIA and A&AA), great resources were available that provide simple and practical information to step-parents through when and how to introduce these foods.

Publication: Raymond James Mullins, Keith B. G. Dear and Mimi L. K. Tang. 'Changes in Australian food anaphylaxis admission rates following introduction of updated allergy prevention guidelines,' The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. DOI: 10.1016/j.jaci.2021.12.795

Available for interview:

Professor Mimi Tang, MCRI Director of Allergy Translation and Group Leader, Allergy Immunology

Dr Raymond Mullins, John James Medical Centre, Allergy Specialist

Maria Said, Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia CEO

Media Contacts:

Bridie Byrne                                                                       

MCRI Communications Specialist                                                                        
+61 457 365 848

Dr Raymond Mullins
John James Medical Centre
+61 2 6282 2689
[email protected] 

About MCRI

The Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) is the largest child health research institute in Australia committed to making discoveries and developing treatments to improve child and adolescent health in Australia and around the world. They are pioneering new treatments, trialling better vaccines and improving ways of diagnosing and helping sick babies, children and adolescents. It is one of the only research institutes in Australia to offer genetic testing to find answers for families of children with previously undiagnosed conditions.