More Hong Kong children suffer from severe allergic reactions than the international average, the first large-scale study on food allergies shows.
The findings have prompted calls for more government support in schools and better community understanding for these children.
"The proportion of children in Hong Kong with a food allergy is no less than that in other countries. The situation should not be underestimated," said Dr Marco Ho Hok-kung, one of the researchers from Queen Mary Hospital.
The city-wide survey of more than 7,000 children aged 14 and under found that 4.8 per cent reported having a food allergy, with shellfish topping the list of culprits. The researchers said Asians should not overlook the possibility of a peanut allergy as the survey found that four in every 1,000 children had it, compared with six in 1,000 in the United States.
Of the 352 children with a food allergy, 15.8 per cent had severe reactions like breathing difficulties and heart problems, higher than the internationally accepted average of 10 per cent.
Ho, a paediatrician who is also an honorary clinical assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the research, completed last year, served as a baseline study.
As chairman of the Hong Kong Allergy Association, he hopes further studies will be done to influence Hong Kong's policies, such as the need for more allergy specialists in hospitals' paediatric departments.
Schools may need to be equipped to give more support to children with allergies as many pupils have meals at school.
Association executive committee member Rosa Li Yu Kar-wai said her 15-year-old daughter had multiple food allergies and faced many problems when her family returned to Hong Kong from Canada 10 years ago. Li asked mainstream schools if they were able to support her daughter if she needed help, such as ensuring that she could get an injection during an emergency.
Some schools told her they could not guarantee help, adding that Li might want to come and take care of her daughter herself. In the end, she found an international school with a nurse on the staff who could help her daughter in emergencies.
Li often had to bring home-cooked food for her daughter when eating out, she said, and sometimes she felt pressured by restaurant staff when trying to get special meals.
"Many Hong Kong people lack understanding of food allergies," Li said. "Overseas, you only have to mention it and people know what it's about."
Ho added that children with food allergies who needed a special diet could be discriminated against. There were cases of bullying reported overseas, he said, and more awareness and support was needed.
WHEN TO REACT
You should seek medical help:
If your child says they cannot breathe or if they seem to be having difficulties breathing.
If there are signs of shock, such as extreme tiredness or a rapid heart rate.
Is it food poisoning or an allergic reaction?
Ninety per cent of allergic reactions affect the skin - so check for rashes.
How to minimise the chances of an allergic reaction when food is introduced to a child's diet for the first time:
Cook the food thoroughly - for example, peanuts in a soup or congee are easier to handle than a serving of peanut butter.
Source: Dr Marco Ho Hok-kung, Queen Mary Hospital