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Anaphylaxis Debate, House of Commons, April 19, 2013

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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, it is my pleasure to stand before the House today to discuss Motion No. 230.

To go over the background of my motion, I raised this issue in the previous Parliament, but as a result of an election, it did not get a chance to make it all the way through. Therefore, today I will talk about what anaphylaxis is, some of the challenges people have to deal with, what is being done by our government and what we can do to help address this issue.

I am grateful for the number of people who have helped me understand this issue in great detail, and I think it is important to explain to all Canadians exactly what that is.

Anaphylaxis is a severe medical condition and a serious public health issue. Unfortunately, there is no cure for anaphylaxis or food allergies in general, at least not yet. The only way to prevent an anaphylactic reaction is to avoid the allergen causing it. The best way to diminish the likelihood of a reaction is through greater public awareness of the condition and its triggers.

Anaphylactic reactions are caused by a negative response to an allergen. Allergens can be in the form of medications, insect bites, latex, certain foods, and in fact there are over 200 recognized allergens. The top 10 food allergens are eggs, seafood, milk, tree nuts, sesame, sulphites, wheat, mustard, soy, peanuts and other cereal grains containing gluten.

Adults are more prone to reactions from medications, insect bites and stings, while foods are the most common allergic trigger in children and in young people.

There are many symptoms that can occur as a result of an anaphylactic reaction. They generally happen within minutes of coming into contact with the allergen, although a reaction could also occur several hours after exposure. There are five areas where symptoms present themselves: the skin, the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal system, the cardiovascular system and mood.

When symptoms present themselves, usually two or more parts of the body are affected. Symptoms present themselves on the skin 80% to 90% of the time, while the respiratory system is affected in 70% of cases. The gastrointestinal system is affected in 30% to 45% of cases, while the cardiovascular system is affected 10% to 45% of the time. In addition, the central nervous system is affected in 10% to 15% of anaphylactic reactions.

Victims of anaphylaxis can exhibit symptoms such as hives, itching, swelling, rash, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, hay fever symptoms and chest pain. They could experience cramps and nausea, develop a weak pulse and light-headedness, and even go into shock. Mood and behaviour can also be affected, bringing on a feeling of anxiety and a sense of impending doom.

The most serious symptoms are breathing difficulties and a drop in blood pressure, both of which can be life-threatening. The throat constricts, oxygen is not delivered to the brain, and one could experience a panic attack and actually go into shock. When these signs or symptoms arise, patients must immediately receive medical attention, specifically a dose of epinephrine. Those with a serious allergy carry an epinephrine autoinjector, an EpiPen or Twinject, to prevent an anaphylactic reaction when exposed to the allergen. However, if left untreated, one could fall unconscious and possibly die.

Clearly, anaphylaxis is a serious and dangerous medical condition. It is estimated that 2.5 million Canadians live with anaphylaxis, and this number continues to rise every year. It is projected that 3,500 Canadians experience anaphylactic shock each year from eating the wrong foods. Of those 3,500, about a dozen die.

One in two Canadians knows someone with a serious food allergy. Alarmingly, it is most prevalent in young children, specifically those under the age of three. Close to 6% of children below the age of three and 300,000 youths under the age of 18 are affected by general food allergies.

Disturbingly, the frequency of food allergies has increased by 350% from 1996 to 2002. The prevalence of peanut and nut allergies has increased by over 250% over that time, and it should be noted that the majority allergic persons are under the age of 30, with an excess of those being born in 1992.

As such, it is no surprise that more than 40% of Canadians examine the ingredient information on food labels either for themselves or for someone living with anaphylaxis. The most recognized allergy is the one to peanuts. Peanuts and tree nuts are responsible for the majority of fatal anaphylactic reactions. A study examining 13 fatal and near-fatal cases in children concluded that 10 of the 13 incidents occurred as a result of reactions to peanuts or nuts.

Even with greater vigilance, someone with a peanut or nut allergy will have an accidental episode every three to five years. Accidental exposures occur as a result of not being able to see the residue of the food allergen that can be left on any appliance or piece of furniture. Airborne proteins can also cause serious issues as they can induce an asthmatic attack. These statistics emphasize the magnitude of the anaphylaxis and the importance of bringing it to national attention.

Many Canadians, including numerous families from my constituency, face a frequent and frightening threat of an anaphylactic reaction. Liam and Lucas, two young children from my riding, both live with a peanut and tree nut allergy. Liam has had three serious allergic reactions, one of which required immediate emergency medical assistance as he was transported to the hospital by ambulance. Thankfully, he was okay.

Similar to Liam, Lucas has to avoid many areas and events where he could come in contact with allergens that affect him. He avoids social gatherings, sporting events, and travelling on airplanes as the risk is just too great.

David, another young man in my riding, lives with a serious latex allergy. He has experienced several reactions while undergoing an operation. His condition was stabilized by the medical staff, but not before terrifying his family. This goes to show that even in Canada, with our most health-conscious environments, anaphylaxis demands more awareness and attention.

Another young man also named Lucas lives with a life-threatening dairy allergy. Lucas also has a serious heart condition, but the risk of anaphylactic reaction is what worries his mother most. Families dealing with anaphylaxis try to vet everything that goes into their households. However, those who live with anaphylaxis are most at risk outside of the house where one has little or no control over the surroundings. Parents try to teach their children the risks of the condition so that children can safely interact with friends and teachers.

Travelling by airplane is perhaps the best example of a high-risk environment where peanuts and mixed nuts are common snack foods. With airplanes being so enclosed, the risk of having an allergic reaction to a nearby allergen residue or airborne protein is very high. Air travel is unnerving for those living with anaphylaxis as flying at 35,000 feet leaves them highly vulnerable and far from medical facilities.

I have heard from many people struggling with anaphylaxis. I have also had many discussions with members of the Canadian Anaphylaxis Initiative, or CAI, and Niagara Anaphylaxis Support and Knowledge, or NASK. These two groups do great work spreading awareness of anaphylaxis. They improve the lives of Canadians living with the condition by promoting anaphylactic-safe environments, as well as educating governments, organizations, and businesses to do the same. CAI, NASK and those who live with anaphylaxis recognize the total elimination of various allergens is an unrealistic goal. Instead, their objective is to reduce accidental exposure to allergens as much as possible.

The ideal way to achieve this goal is to increase the awareness about the condition. That is what Motion No. 230 seeks to do. With more awareness, Canadians will become familiar with the risk of anaphylaxis and will hopefully take precautions to limit accidental exposure for those who may be vulnerable. This, in turn, will create a safer environment for everyone. There should be supportive and alert communities that ensure preventive measures are taken to avoid anaphylactic reactions.

It is important to mention that preliminary steps have been taken to spread awareness of anaphylaxis and to recognize its severity. Individuals, companies, and governments have acted appropriately in this regard. For instance, in 2005 the passing of Sabrina’s Law by the Ontario government was a good step forward. In 2003, grade nine student Sabrina Shannon experienced an anaphylactic reaction to a dairy protein and, tragically, passed away. Her death led to an important piece of legislation, the very first of its kind in the world.

It guarantees that all Ontario school boards have policies and procedures in place to respond to the threat posed by anaphylaxis. Some of these policies are comprised of education and training for staff to administer treatment to students who suffer an anaphylactic reaction. The result of this new law is increased protection for the thousands of children who were at risk before its implementation.

In the private sector, the Toronto Blue Jays offered a peanut-controlled zone for three of their home games in the previous season. These zones ensured that fans at risk of a serious anaphylactic reaction were given a safer place to enjoy the game.

Similar to the Blue Jays organization, there are several practical steps that ordinary people could take to prevent anaphylactic reactions. People could find out if friends, neighbours or co-workers are anaphylactic. If hosting an event that includes a guest with a severe allergy, the host could look up recipes that do not contain products relating to the allergen. Furthermore, one could thoroughly clean food preparation surfaces before cooking, to ensure that no potential allergen residue is present.

It is my hope that we will see more individuals, organizations and businesses take similar precautions in the future. It must be mentioned that this government has recognized the importance of addressing anaphylaxis and has acted on previous recommendations by providing funding to allergy research.

In March 2012, my colleague, the hon. Minister of State for Science and Technology , announced $36.5 million to support AllerGen, the allergy, genes and environment network centres of excellence, for the next seven years. AllerGen does important work in researching allergies and reduces the risk of anaphylaxis.

Also, in August of 2012, new regulations came into effect that enhanced the labelling of priority food allergens on prepackaged retail foods. These regulations will help consumers distinguish which foods are safe and which products they should avoid.

Finally, I want to draw attention to this government’s decision to designate May as national anaphylaxis month. It is evident that progress has been made in addressing anaphylaxis. However, as with other public health concerns in Canadian communities, more can be done. There is more awareness of the serious medical condition that is needed on a nationwide level.

That is why I urge the House to approve my motion and launch anaphylaxis onto the national stage. The motion will promote greater awareness, and since there is no cure, anaphylaxis awareness is the best way to mitigate the risk. By adopting this motion, the Canadian government will be taking another step forward to ensuring that Canadians living with anaphylaxis are able to maintain a higher quality of life. I am certain my colleague from St. Catharines shares my feelings on this issue. He first introduced the motion in the 39th Parliament, but unfortunately it expired when an election was called in 2008. I would also like to thank him for starting the process and for his continued support to see anaphylaxis recognized as a serious concern.

I would like to thank all the members of my community, and those across Canada, who have helped to bring this important issue forward. Special thanks go to Mindi Ferkul, Cindy Paskey, Chris George and Debbie Bruce for their tremendous help. I realize there are many others as well. However, these are the individuals I have had the pleasure and opportunity to work with on this issue on an ongoing basis. I appreciate their tremendous help for that. Their dedication to anaphylaxis awareness is inspiring, and their support for this motion from day one was greatly appreciated.

I would also like to thank my colleagues in the House, and from all parties, for their kind words of support. With so much encouragement from so many people I am determined to see this motion pass. We must recognize the seriousness of anaphylaxis at the federal level, as a critical problem affecting too many Canadians. This motion aims to make their lives easier and would contribute to much deserved peace of mind.

When voting for this motion, I would ask members to consider the story of Liam, Lucas and David, as well as the 2.5 million Canadians who live every day at risk of an anaphylactic reaction. With this motion, we will send a clear message to all those who live with the condition that the Canadian government and the Canadian people recognize their struggle and that we are taking action to improve their lives.

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

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