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Anaphylaxis Debate, House of Commons, March 21, 2011

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Opening Remarks: Mr. Dean Allison (MP Niagara-Glanbrook)

MP Allison moved: That, in the opinion of the House, anaphylaxis is a serious concern for an increasing number of Canadians and the government should take the appropriate measures necessary to ensure these Canadians are able to maintain a high quality of life.

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank a number of individuals who have been behind the scenes working hard on this: Cindy Paskey, Chris George and Debbie Bruce from my area of the country. I know this is an initiative that has been worked on across the country but I want thank the people from NASK, which is in the Niagara region, for being such huge proponents behind the scenes and working so hard and tirelessly on behalf of this issue. It is an important issue and they have done a great job.

It is a great honour to begin debate on my motion on anaphylaxis, which reads: That, in the opinion of the House, anaphylaxis is a serious concern for an increasing number of Canadians and the government should take the appropriate measures necessary to ensure these Canadians are able to maintain a high quality of life.

I must admit that I have been overwhelmed by the public reaction to this motion since it was added to the order paper back in June 2010. I have received an enormous amount of emails and phone calls and have had many people come up to me and thank me for bringing this very important issue forward for debate.

I have also been very encouraged by the support I have received from my hon. colleagues from across party lines who have voiced their support for this motion. I thank all parliamentarians who have spoken or written to me and all of those who took the time out of their busy schedules to attend the information luncheon I hosted back in December of last year.

I would especially like to thank the hon. member from St. Catharines who first introduced a motion on anaphylaxis back in the 39th Parliament, which ended before he had the opportunity to bring it forward for debate. He and his staff have been most helpful throughout this process.

Anaphylaxis describes the most severe form of allergic reaction. An anaphylactic episode is rapid in onset and, without immediate medical treatment, can sometimes lead to death. While the most common cause of these reactions is the ingestion of or contact with certain foods, they can also be caused by insect stings, medicine or even something as simple as contact with latex.

An estimated 1.3 million Canadians suffer or are affected with this condition, and that number continues to rise. Most of us know someone whose life has been affected by anaphylaxis. It is for these people that this motion is being brought forward.

It is for Carmen, whose daughter, Caitlin, has already been diagnosed with anaphylaxis and who has now been told that another daughter, Caroline, must wait eight months before being tested after having a horrifying episode while the family was dining out at a restaurant.

It is for Susan and her five-year-old son, Lucas, who she describes as her most loyal friend. Susan actually worries more about the milk allergy that afflicts Lucas than she does his potentially fatal congenital heart defect that he also has been diagnosed with.

It is also for Chris and his family who take their vacations by car rather than a plane so as to feel safer about avoiding a food allergy reaction that could prove deadly for seven-year-old David.

How can bringing forward such a motion and passing this motion help these and other families living with anaphylaxis? Perhaps my greatest goal with this motion is to increase awareness. Education tends to lead to more consideration from those who do not suffer toward those who do. I think about how it is now becoming common to be asked whether one has food allergies when being invited to weddings and other public events,and even smaller dinner parties with new friends. This would have seemed very strange 10 or 20 years ago, but as food allergy organizations have increasingly educated the public, we are seeing this type of consideration become more commonplace.

As the general public learns more about the grave dangers facing anaphylaxis sufferers, they can take and are taking more precautions in their daily lives, reducing that burden that, until recently, tended to lie solely with the affected person and their families.

Thoughtful Canadians are now asking about allergies before cooking meals for dinner guests. They are now packing lunches for their children that avoid some of the most common allergens. They are using more discretion in the snacks they choose to eat in public places where they might be sitting too close to someone with severe food allergies. This is very important in places like sports stadiums and classrooms but even more so on a plane or train where medical assistance may not be readily available should an anaphylactic attack occur. This type of consideration by non-allergy sufferers is becoming more commonplace and it is hoped that through greater awareness this level of thoughtfulness will only continue to increase.

To understand why this awareness and consideration is so highly sought by the anaphylaxis community, one must consider the fears that a parent of an affected child has on a daily basis. Let us imagine a father or mother who has seen first-hand their child having a life-threatening attack where, within minutes, their face and neck have swollen to become almost unrecognizable and the child struggles just to breathe.

Let us imagine that each day when the child goes to school the parent is left worrying whether that child will unknowingly come into contact with the trigger that could cause a similar reaction. It could be something as simple and innocent as another child sharing a snack that could cause a life or death situation. These very real and terrifying fears of a parent can never go away, but collective steps can be taken to help ease them considerably.

I have spoken with constituents who have a great deal more comfort because their child is in a school that has made it a priority to provide as safe an environment as possible. Food programs have been altered and alternative solutions found, making it less likely that children with food allergies will encounter their forbidden substance. While not all schools have been so accommodating, I believe that as awareness increases so too will the level of consideration and mutual level of respect that leads to the discovery of solutions agreeable to everyone.

Of course, such an outcome is more important at the schools level because 80% of children with anaphylaxis do not outgrow their condition. It is hoped that it might eventually become more commonplace to see this dialogue and mutual respect, leading to protective measures throughout Canadian society.

While raising awareness is a key motive for bringing forward this motion, it is also hoped that the passage of it will encourage further federal government action with measures designed to increase protection for those Canadians living with anaphylaxis.

However, before talking about what can be done, it is important to underline what has been done. With the announcement of the 2007 food and consumer safety action plan, our government signalled an ongoing commitment to develop policies and standards in support of these issues. I am very proud to be part of a government where these words have been followed up with action. Last month I had the pleasure to participate in a very important announcement concerning new food labelling regulations.

Our health minister announced new requirements for manufacturers to clearly declare all food allergens as well as gluten sources and sulphites by name in the products that they sell. This can either be in the list of ingredients or at the end of the list of ingredients using the word “contains”.

The regulations will also require that food allergens, gluten sources and sulphites that are sub-ingredients of food be declared on the product label. For example, if a bag of potato chips uses casein in its seasonings, milk will be required to be declared in the list of ingredients. The mention of milk can appear in brackets after the seasoning declaration in the list of ingredients or in the “contains” statement. Once these new regulations are fully implemented by August 2012, consumers with food allergies will benefit greatly by being able to more easily avoid foods that contain their specific and potentially deadly allergens.

However, more can be done, and going forward there are five key areas where stakeholders have asked the federal government to consider further action: One, initiating awareness campaigns; two, greater federal coordination on anaphylaxis matters; three, a long-term commitment to research; four, improved transportation safeguards; and five, improved allergen labelling.

I have already talked about why awareness is so important to the cause and certainly a nationally coordinated information campaign will go a long way toward educating Canadians. However, this recommendation is also important as there needs to be greater levels of knowledge and understanding among health care providers.

Health Canada can and should play a key role in providing accurate and targeted information to groups such as medical professionals, first aid and emergency training providers, child care workers, food service providers and to those who work in the hospitality industry. Consideration should also be given to establishing awareness initiatives for publicly regulated workplaces and public transportation vehicles, as well as public facilities.

Greater federal coordination is not only important in an awareness campaign but also to the programs and services that deal with distribution of information regarding anaphylaxis and food allergy information. To this end, Health Canada could consider creating a primary contact in order to coordinate federal departments and agencies in the combined response to the growing instances and risks associated with anaphylaxis. This contact would also develop communications channels across federal, provincial, territorial and municipal borders in order to coordinate intergovernmental health information.

It is important that all levels of government work together on this issue. I have been encouraged by municipal governments in my riding that have passed motions endorsing Motion No. 546. One of the benefits of working in coordination is that there are sometimes great ideas in one jurisdiction that could be considered by other jurisdictions, sooner rather than later. A prime example of this would be a private member’s bill known as Sabrina’s law that was enacted in Ontario and has received widespread praise for the positive effect it has had in the protection of students.

What Sabrina’s law does in the province is threefold: first, it provides strategies to reduce exposure to allergens; second, it provides procedures to communicate to parents, students and employees about life-threatening allergies; and three, it provides regular training to deal with life-threatening allergies for teachers and staff. What happened to Sabrina was quite sad but the legacy of the bill has been good for the whole community.
Another important step that the federal government could take is a commitment to research.

We, unfortunately, do not yet understand why the disease is becoming so prevalent, how to stop this upward trend or how to prevent food allergies from developing. It is incredibly important that we mobilize Canadian researchers to find ways to prevent this trend. A long-term financial and program commitment is necessary within Canada, and standardized and evidence-based guidelines for diagnosis, management and treatment of food allergy and anaphylaxis need to be developed.

The federal government can also lead the way by implementing new allergy safeguards for people making use of public transit that will reduce the risk of unnecessary and potentially fatal anaphylaxis attacks. The establishment of a transport policy that implements risk reduction for anaphylaxis passengers should be explored. Air travel especially should require airlines to consult with the anaphylaxis community to develop policies to effectively reduce some of the risks.

Small steps have been taken in this regard but I agree with anaphylaxis organizations that have said that more can be done.

While the airlines, quite rightly, do not want to infringe unnecessarily on the freedoms of other passengers, the safeguards that could be enacted are relatively minor and could be life-saving. Working together with both the airlines and other stakeholders means that the federal government could play a key role in negotiating policies that are both mutually acceptable and that greatly reduce the risk of severe reactions occurring during flights.

I will now talk about what could be done in the area of allergen labelling. As I mentioned earlier, I am very proud of the steps that our government has taken in this regard but there are some considerations as to what priorities might be going forward when it comes to labelling.

The first is that currently there are no regulations surrounding the use of precautionary allergen statements such as “may contain…”, or “processed in a facility that processes….” The danger of the lack of formal rules in this area is that people may have seen those warnings on so many labels that they may incorrectly assume that because they do not see it that the product is necessarily safe. That actually might not be the case but rather that the producer of the packaging has simply chosen not to include such a warning.

Another positive move to consider in this regard would be to consider the development of an allergy aware symbol that indicates that an item has been reviewed for the 10 major allergens.

Effective steps can be taken to make the lives of anaphylaxis sufferers safer and provide a degree of relief to them and their families. Our government and members from all sides of the House have started down the right road in this important cause. It was encouraging to witness this Chamber pass a unanimous motion to designate May as Food Allergy Awareness Month in Canada. This means so much to so many families coping with anaphylaxis.

I am, therefore, heartened by the response so far to Motion No. 546. I look forward to working together with all parliamentarians to see it passed and then acted upon in an effort to continue to improve the lives of anaphylaxis sufferers and their families.

To read the full anaphylaxis debate from the House of Commons, click here.

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