Belfast Telegraph

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Kerry McLean: Having had to be on high alert all my life because of my own allergies, my heart goes out to the family of tragic Natasha

By Kerry McLean

I was around a year old when my parents first discovered that I had a whole host of food allergies.

I was a sickly wee soul with asthma and eczema, two illnesses that go hand in hand with allergies. Instead of growing and gaining strength, I spent days on end in oxygen tents, struggling to breathe, until a very clever doctor suggested I might be having problems with digesting dairy.

After some tense trial and error experiments, my folks realised that goat's milk was a safe alternative for me (it isn't always for those who can't take cow's milk), found a farmer who was willing to give us some pints of the white stuff and for the next few years, our weekly routine was punctuated by regular visits out to his farm, to collect our supply of milk.

My mum and dad had successfully got to grips with my dairy issues at an early stage but coping with my allergies felt a bit like battling the Lernaean Hydra from Greek mythology - cut one head off and two grew back in place. By the time I was at school, I'd spent more time in A&E than some of the doctors who worked there.

My list of danger foods, those that could cause a fatal reaction, included milk, peas, lentils, eggs and nuts. Any outings we had as a family to cafes or restaurants would begin with my mum interrogating the staff, asking about exactly what had gone into this or that and detailing my entire medical history as a way of highlighting just how important it was that we received accurate information. As a child, I was mortified; as a parent, I absolutely understand where she was coming from.

In an era long before the internet and the endless amount of information it delivers to our fingertips, my mum was like a hound dog, digging up and discovering snippets of information and recipes that could be made, replacing ingredients and making my diet as much like everyone else's as possible. Sometimes with great success and sometimes, not so much. Thanks to my inability to eat eggs or milk, I'd never had a birthday cake as a child. Just before my ninth birthday my mum announced she'd uncovered a new recipe that allowed her to bake without either.

I'm still not exactly sure of all the ingredients that went into that creation but when I tell you it contained copious amounts of vinegar, you'll have an idea just how unusual a taste it had.

I loved her for trying but let's just say it wasn't a recipe we revisited for my 10th birthday...

When I was young, less than 3% of primary school children had food allergies.

This week the charity, Allergy UK, confirmed that it's now 8% and growing.

With that worrying growth has come an understanding that people need information about what they're eating. We expect every component of a meal to be listed on packets or mentioned on menus but, as the sad case of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse proves, it's still not always the case. Natasha's story has been in the news for the last few weeks as an inquest uncovered how this 15-year-old, a girl who was aware of her allergies and did everything possible to avoid them, lost her life after eating a sandwich containing sesame seeds, an ingredient not listed on the packaging. That's just not acceptable.

The last time I ended up in hospital was the day after I realised I was expecting my youngest. We went out for a meal to celebrate and, despite having stated I was allergic to nuts, was served some in an ice cream sundae. I can't tell you how scared I was, partly for myself but more so for my unborn child and what damage it might do. Luckily, we both came through unscathed, a minor trauma compared to what Natasha's family have suffered and will continue to go through.

My heart goes out to them. They shouldn't be facing a future without their daughter over something that could be so easily remedied with a bit of care over labelling and dissemination of vital information.

Here's hoping that, after Natasha, lessons are learned and it never happens again.

Belfast Telegraph

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