It was an emotional moment for members of the Teal Community in Dubai last night.
As the iconic Burj Al Arab Jumeirah’s flank lit up in the blue-green hue, a small group of socially distanced Teal Community Dubai members gathered round to take photos and give thanks to Burj Al Arab Jumeirah for raising awareness of an issue that could not be closer to their hearts.
It’s an issue that all of us know about, but few of us really understand.
An issue that might seem like a mere inconvenience from the outside looking in, but for those affected is a matter of life and death.
We’re talking about food allergies.
Turn it teal
Food Allergy Awareness week happens every year in the month of May. Burj Al Arab Jumeirah’s decision to support the cause by lighting up in teal is part of a global initiative, Light It Teal, which has seen buildings, bridges and monuments from Niagara Falls in Canada to Melbourne Town Hall in Australia and London England’s City Hall illuminated in the colour.
Burj Al Arab Jumeriah lit up in teal at 7pm on 23 May 2021, and again on 24 May at 7pm.
“Severe food allergy can cause anaphylaxis, which is a serious, life threatening allergic reaction, with the most common anaphylactic reactions being to food, insect bites, medications and latex,” says Perrine Lefebvre, a French expat member of Dubai’s Teal Community and the mother of a daughter with food allergies.
“If you are allergic to a substance, your immune system overreacts to this allergen by releasing chemicals that cause allergy symptoms, which often involve swelling, hives and lowered blood pressure.”
The usual treatment is to inject epinephrine [using an ‘EpiPen’, an auto-injectable device that delivers the drug epinephrine] and to head to the closest emergency department for six hours of monitoring, explains Perrine. “The earlier you inject it the better because it stops the allergic reaction at an early stage. If not treated quickly, anaphylaxis can be fatal.”
Why awareness is so crucial
Dubai-based Neil Lineham’s daughter Maddie tragically passed away seven years ago at the age of 10 following a severe allergic reaction. Based in South West France at the time, Maddie had been seeing an allergy specialist since she was five years old for her allergies to dairy and chicken. “He had never explained the risk Maddie was at with having asthma and allergies,” says Neil. “Maddie did not have an EpiPen. We had not been told of the risk of anaphylaxis. Maddie had never had a severe reaction to anything before - only mild reactions to dairy and chicken.”
On 14 January 2014, Maddie had a serious reaction to a small piece of a health bar that stated on the packet that it did not contain dairy. Rushed to the doctor immediately, she was at first unfortunately misdiagnosed as having an asthma attack, so that by the time they began administering the treatment for anaphylaxis it was too late. Maddie went into cardiac arrest and tragically never recovered.
It’s for this reason that parents like Neil are so passionate about spreading awareness of the seriousness of food allergies. “This isn't an isolated case. Every year, toddlers, children, teenagers and even adults pass away due to food allergies,” says Perrine. “Awareness is essential so that the general population, staff working in restaurants, staff working in schools, and other caregivers are aware that food allergies are not a joke and they can kill.”
Allergy not intolerance
While we all might be very familiar with the food allergy symbols on menus and the restrictions on nuts and sesame in most school classrooms, the message about food allergies has been diluted by the increased popularity of different dietary requirements in general, as well as by the concept of food intolerances, says Perrine.
“Food allergies are very different from food intolerances,” emphasizes Perrine. “Food allergies can be fatal, which is not the case for food intolerances. These days a lot of people with food intolerances claim, in restaurants, that they have food allergies, which dilutes the importance of the message.”
Every snack is potentially deadly
For parents of children with food allergies, every day is a battle against potential contamination. Every meal, every snack could be hiding the invisible trigger of a possibly deadly reaction.
“My nine-year-old daughter, Toscane is allergic to milk, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, fish and seafood,” explains Perrine. “A little bit of any of her allergens – even something as small as a bit of a cookie containing milk or egg for example - could trigger a severe allergic reaction and anaphylaxis. If not treated quickly and in the proper way this could be fatal.”
Allergy has been a part of Perrine and her daughter’s life ever since she was a baby, when she was covered in eczema at the age of six weeks, and the family has had many frightening brushes with anaphylaxis ever since. “The last time it happened we were in a restaurant where they were serving homemade strawberry juice for kids. We always have to inquire: ‘What do you put in the juice? What do you put in the blender? Only fruits?’ The answer in this instance was yes, so my daughter drank it, but she soon started coughing and feeling unwell. We had another discussion with the manager, who finally admitted that they do put milk in the blender, but that they rinse it. My daughter had anaphylaxis that day and needed her treatment. It’s important for people to realise that even a trace can trigger a serious allergic reaction.”
Don’t just sympathise with kids with allergies – embrace them
Even family members who are aware of children’s food allergies can lack understanding of their seriousness says Emirati mother of four, Sara Al Zarouni, who suffers from food allergies herself, along with three of her children (aged 4, 6 and 7).
“The scariest moments for me are when my children are around people who do not understand the severity of their allergies,” says Sara. “One time, I was with my eldest son, who is allergic to nuts, and a family member fed him a dessert that contained pistachios. The family member removed the piece of pistachio from the top first and then fed it to him, thinking it would be OK. But my son’s reaction was so severe that we barely made it to the hospital in time even after we had given him an EpiPen.”
The term ‘food allergy’ is overused out of context and extremely underrated, adds Sara. “I wish people truly understood the severity and fatality of the situation, as food allergies are life-threatening and require immediate action. Also, I wish people would not just sympathize with those who have allergies, but rather embrace them and really try to understand them.”
Allergic children can feel like social pariahs
Food is involved in most social events and living with a severe food allergy as a child means you cannot participate in many of the social events you are invited to, says UAE-based Spanish expat Mar Ribas, who is the mother of a 12-year-old daughter with food allergies. “Children might even feel scared of being around people eating. It is a burden for the child with food allergies and their family and it has an important impact on their quality of life.”
Perrine agrees: “Every social event in our society includes food. Therefore, people living with food allergies are always ‘excluded’ from the events. Very rarely the food is adapted to the one allergic person at an event. Kids with food allergies can be rejected from some overnight camps for example.”
If society could be more aware, not only could children be and feel safer at social events, but they could also feel understood and cared for by the people around them, says Mar: “I realize there is a lot of information around food allergies and food intolerances these days and it must not be easy to understand the nuances and the potential seriousness of allergies if you are not affected yourself. But I am convinced about the need of raising awareness around food allergies, what they are and how severe a reaction can be.”
An estimated 8% of children in the US suffer from food allergies, a figure that has been on the rise over the last 20 years. Food allergies can also strike at any age – even adults can suddenly become allergic to something that they had never had a problem with before.
The Burj Al Arab Jumeirah’s involvement in Turn It Teal is a key part of the movement to raise awareness of food allergies, says Perrine, “to encourage more people to become educated about food allergies, their daily impact on people, and how they can help those with allergies, perhaps someday helping to find a cure.”