Wednesday, September 26, 2007

House of Lords Reports on Allergy And Allergic Disease

Imagine having a Ferrari that you are only ever allowed to drive in a velodrome. Imagine further, that there is a noise-limiter on the engine and that you are not allowed to exceed 12 miles an hour. The UK is in the somewhat remarkable position of having some of the most well-respected and expert clinical allergists and immunologists in the world yet employing them within a National Health Service that is infamous for its lack of adequate allergy services and the poverty of available resources.

A House of Lords Committee has been investigating allergy and allergic diseases in the UK. The House of Lords (HoL) committee has issued a comprehensive report (HL 166-1 or pdf) and made some strong recommendations that seem wholly appropriate to the scale of need within the UK.

It is breathtakingly difficult to obtain a referral to a clinical allergist in the UK. In the whole of the UK, we have the equivalent of 26.5 consultant posts: approximately 5 of those are specialists in paediatric allergy. Clinical allergists frequently express their concern that it is this lack of provision that is driving some desperate people towards inappropriately qualified advisers who may lack a full understanding of allergy, anaphylaxis, intolerance and their appropriate diagnosis and management. The lack of timely access to NHS allergy diagnosis and management pushes people who suspect that they have allergies towards the more dubious fringes of CAM or to testing laboratories that claim clinical validation and "sound science" for their product range of tests.

Both allergies and intolerances can have a dramatic and deletrious impact on quality of life. Allergy can kill. It is difficult to write about less severe forms of allergy because it is not practical to predict whether or not a mild allergy might suddenly become a life-threatening allergy.

A number of children 'grow out of' allergies but many of them don't although there is some indication that timely intervention for allergic rhinitis might mitigate the onset of asthma. Some children have allergies that are multi-systemic and this puts them at particular risk.

Allergies are typically managed, not cured. An exception to this is the laborious process of immunotherapy for some allergens which is rarely available on the NHS in the UK and is reserved for those people for whom medical management has failed. However, allergic rhinitis and hayfever respond well to immunotherapy. Immunotherapy can take a long time: people with allergies are exposed to small doses of the substance which causes a reaction in order to "desensitise" them and the exposure is increased gradually to erode the response. Immunotherapy is a well-established standard of care in other countries and known to lighten the disease burden for some allergies. Dr Lourdes de Asis has provided an excellent overview of allergen immunotherapy and reports that where it is used appropriately:
Immunotherapy is successful in up to 90-95% of patients with seasonal allergies and up to 85% of patients with year-round allergies.
Professor Hourihane gave evidence on immunotherapy to the HoL committee; he commented:
The NHS is the laughing stock of Europe for its absence of immunotherapy for allergic diseases.
The technique, which used be given in GPs' surgeries, fell into disrepute in the UK after the mid-1980s after a report from the Committee on the Safety of Medicines in 1986 found that immunotherapy had caused 26 deaths over the previous 30 years. However, Committee Chair, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, reports that it seems that immunotherapy was being administered to "the wrong patients by the wrong people in the wrong places".

The report makes interesting reading and there are many useful recommendations that would make a dramatic difference to allergy services within the UK and a significant difference to the appropriate management of allergic disease and the quality of life of many people. One of the most striking recommendations is the unequivocal support for the re-introduction of immunotherapy as a management technique for allergy and allergic disease with appropriate caveats governing the people and conditions for whom/which this is most effective and the setting for such treatment (a specialist tertiary centre, see pg 79 pdf).
Immunotherapy is a valuable resource in the prophylactic treatment of patients with life-threatening allergies, or whose allergic disease does not respond to other medication. Although initially expensive, immunotherapy can prevent a symptomatic allergic response for many years, and may prevent the development of additional allergic conditions, so its wider use could potentially result in significant long-term savings for the NHS. We recommend that NICE should conduct a full cost-benefit analysis of the potential health, social and economic value of immunotherapy treatment. [pg 81, pdf.]
This is a comprehensive and fine report with many important recommendations that I shall explore in other posts (not least, the importance of food-labelling; the call for responsible professionals and charities to stop endorsing direct to consumer allergy and intolerance tests and an outline plan to set up a national network of specialist allergy centres).

However, one dispiriting note is that the HoL Committee can only make recommendations. The National Allergy Strategy Group (NASG) represents clinicians working in the field of allergy, and cautions that this is the fourth national report highlighting deficiencies and the Department of Health has failed to act on any of them despite increasing evidence of the marked increase in allergies in the UK. The NASG representative said:
Health Ministers must act now.

Unless health authorities and trusts are directed to develop services and funding is identified, patient care will not improve.

Investment to train more specialists in allergy and to support GP education is needed.

Failure to diagnose and treat allergy is resulting in continuing illness and cost to the NHS.
These clinicians are experts; they have a very clear view of the desperate state of allergy services on the NHS. It is long past time that the Dept. of Health should stop making these people tootle round velodromes; these clinicians deserve better and so do millions of people throughout the UK who need the provision that they recommend.

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