FOOD FOR THOUGHT
With an estimated Bt27 million being spent yearly on treating food allergies in children, shouldn't we all be thinking of prevention rather than cure?
Today's parents are ever alert to allergies in their children and know firsthand that testing and treatment can run into the thousands of baht. Yet almost all will be astonished at the findings of a new study, which has revealed that the direct costs associated with atopic diseases are estimated at a whopping Bt27.8 billion and that the highest cost, associated with cow's milk allergy, is Bt64,383 per person per year, representing 24 per cent of the average annual household income.
The study was conducted by Associate Professor Jarungchit Ngamphaiboon, head of the allergy and immunology division, Paediatrics Department, Faculty of Medicine, Chulalongkorn University, and covered medical costs associated with allergic disease in children up to five years of age.
Dr Jarungchit shared her findings at a recent press seminar hosted by Nestle (Thai) entitled "Prevention is Better Than Cure - Allergic Burden Can Be Estimated".
The study, supported by Nestle Nutrition Institute, lists household expenses for treating allergies in children under the headings of primary treatment (46 per cent), in-patient care (37 per cent), out-patient care (12 per cent), and monitoring and lab tests (5 per cent). The average medical expenses range between Bt5,432 and Bt64,483 per person per year in Thailand.
"This study showed that about 1.8 million children have allergies," Jarungchit says. "Allergic disorders currently affect 25 per cent of the paediatric population worldwide including Thailand and the rate is rising steadily. And cow's milk allergy ranks the highest in terms of cost of medical care, followed by allergic rhinitis at Bt12,699, asthma at Bt9,633, and atopic dermatitis at Bt5,432. Allergy is the most common illness in children."
Jarungchit explains that during the first year of life, food allergies tend to break out through the skin, causing rashes. As children grow older, the allergic disorder develops and is often diagnosed as related to the weather, with symptoms cropping in the respiratory system.
The paediatrician explains that drugs for treating allergic diseases are mostly aimed at controlling the symptoms and preventing recurrence through continuous usage, especially when the real causes of allergies cannot be determined.
"Our study shows that medicines make up the largest component of medical costs. They account for 46 per cent of medical bills, contributing to higher medical costs. Hence, the early prevention of allergies from birth is the best approach. An effective way of lowering the financial burden is simply to feed infants with breast milk during the first six months of life. Breast milk has the best and most essential nutrients for infants, including probiotics to strengthen the immune system," she adds. "Breastfeeding also makes it less likely that children will come into contact with foreign protein from cow's milk. It is effective in preventing allergies."
Nevertheless, once allergic disorders occur, a change in the infant's diet is required. Strict controls are required over contact with daily products and it's important to seek out alternative protein sources of hydrolysed infant formulas, such as whey protein formula.
"Some parents ask if goat's milk is a good alternative if their child is allergic to cow's milk. But the odds are about 95 per cent that the baby will be allergic to goat's milk too," Jarungchit says.
Jarungchit notes that quite apart from feeding babies with formula, allergies can be avoided if mothers-to-be stick to a balanced diet.
"Westerners drink cow's milk like water, Thai people cannot. Pregnant women are often too cautious about their diet and consume more milk than usual. But a supplement of the necessary nutrients will work just fine. Vegetarian pregnant women also need careful about their diet because they could consume too much of one nutrient. A balanced diet from the very beginning will help prevent infants from developing allergic disorders," Jarungchit points out.