Across Europe and the US, the cost of treating food allergies is incredibly high. The reasons remain unclear but rates of food allergies in the UK have risen sharply in the past 20 years and hospital admissions have increased by 500% since 1990.
It could be that we are more aware of allergies as more are identified and recorded. But the costs are very real. In the US, a survey suggests that the cost to families of children with food allergies could be as high as US$25 billion a year.
The survey of 1,643 care-givers, carried out by US researchers and published in JAMA Pediatrics, looked at the economic impact of treating children with allergies. The authors conclude that not only do households lose out in terms of out-of-pocket expenses and lost productivity, for example by taking time off to look after a child, US$4.3 billion is also spent in direct health-care costs - equating to about US$725 per allergic child.
While this seems a hefty sum, the report makes it difficult to assess how much extra burden is placed on these families compared to those who don’t have children with food allergies.
Our research into this issue in Europe reveals comparable results to those found in the US. Our aim was to estimate the additional costs incurred by people with food allergies and households, as well as the economic burden this placed on health services.
We also wanted to investigate the relationship between health service costs for Europeans with food allergies and severity of symptoms. The currency in Europe varies between member states, so we used something known as the international dollar, which is a calculation of a relative value between different (in this case European) currencies. It has the same purchasing power parity “”) as the US dollar at a given point in time - we used the 2007 I$.
A similar number of participants to the US study - 1,682 - completed a validated questionnaire across nine European countries. Individuals with possible food allergy were identified by clinical history, and those who had a positive reaction to a skin prick test were defined as having probable allergy. We then used data from the World Health Organisation on the unit costs of health services, such as hospital inpatient stays and use of ambulances, to estimate total health-care costs of illness.
Health care costs were confirmed to be significantly higher for food allergic individuals than for controls. The mean annual cost of providing health-care for controls was I$1089 compared to I$2016 per adult with a food allergy - nearly double the amount.
The costs of direct medical care for children (aged seven to 11) had an even greater disparity: I$2,197 for those with possible food allergy, compared to I$863 for controls. These costs are also relatively much greater than those found in the US study.
These differences didn’t appear to be related to demographic differences. As in the US, the costs of food allergies in Europe were significantly and positively related to the severity of illness.
These findings suggest that both working age adults and primary school-aged children with possible food allergies use more health services than those without - and therefore increase health care costs.
In the context of spiralling costs of medical care in Europe and the US, these findings add weight to the conclusion of the US report that it is crucial that a cure for food allergies is found. Until this goal is achieved, it’s important to develop effective treatments and management strategies for those living with this condition across Europe and the US.