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Allergy Explosion

Allergy Explosion Jo Revill, (Kyle Cathie Ltd., 2007, £8.99). ISBN 978-1-85626-730-4. Reviewed by F. H. Falcone, University of Nottingham, UK

Allergy has dramatically increased in many industrialised countries throughout the world in the past decades. In the UK, it is now the commonest chronic disease. Every fourth UK child has hayfever, and other forms of allergic disease such as asthma, eczema, food allergy have also increased. Worryingly, the severity and complexity of allergic disease has also increased. As a result, many if not most families will in some way be affected by allergy. On the other hand, several reports have described the unsatisfactory provision of healthcare for allergy sufferers in the UK. Finally, there is a booming market for so-called alternative diagnostic methods, particularly in the difficult sector of food allergy. Many of these methods are expensive, without any scientific basis, and a waste of money at best. Hence, there is a real need (and a market) for books dealing with the complex topic of allergy, its diagnosis and management, in a way which is helpful for the non-medically or scientifically qualified public seeking orientation in how to manage allergy at a very practical level.

Jo Revill, Whitehall Editor at the Observer, has worked as Health correspondent and Health Editor for several newspapers, including the Sunday Times, the Evening Standard and the Observer, and was awarded the title ‘Medical Journalist of the Year’ by the British Medical Journalists’ Association. Her book has 192 pages and is organised in three main sections and a total of 13 chapters. While part one aims to introduce what allergy is, why it is increasing and how it can be avoided, part two describes various forms of allergic disease, such as hayfever, food allergy, asthma, eczema and contact hypersensitivity. Finally, part three describes diagnosis and therapy of allergy, including so-called alternative or complementary therapies.

The first, short section aims to explain what allergy is and why it is on the increase. This is clearly the weakest section of the book. IgE wasn’t discovered in 1911, ringworm is not a parasitic worm (it is a fungal skin infection) and T cells do not change into plasma cells that secrete antibodies. Chapter 1 does not follow a clear logical structure and, as the previous examples show, is riddled with mistakes (there are more). Certainly these mistakes could have been picked up by any Immunologist or Allergist skimming through this chapter. Also, this part would have benefited from including a few diagrams illustrating key aspects. The whole book has only one figure showing the very simplified anatomy of the lungs, and this figure is neither particularly good nor helpful. Overall, the book is characterised by a consistent lack of a logical structure at the level of the individual chapters and subheadings. For example, chapter 3 starts with lifestyle and diet of pregnant mothers, then mentions the importance of the date of birth, before talking about pets, breastfeeding, probiotics, fatty acids, peanut allergy, unpasteurised milk, oils and creams, antibiotics, hygiene and house dust mites. Although this chapter as a whole ticks most of the right boxes, the order in which this is done seems almost random. The same can be said about the book as a whole. It reads more like a collection of loose articles (each containing snippets of useful information) about the general topic of allergy than a well-structured, thorough and authoritative coverage of a complex and important health topic.

Does the book have redeeming qualities? The short answer is: yes. ‘Allergy Explosion’ contains much information that will be useful for people affected by allergy in one or more of its many forms, including a list of useful websites. Unfortunately the book is written with the UK market in mind and as such has less to offer in terms of useful links for non-British citizens. However, despite its weaknesses (and the reviewer’s suggestion would be to skip parts of the first chapter), this book may help the reader take very practical decisions. Is it safe to have pets in a home with small children? What should a pregnant mother eat or avoid? Can herbs help asthma, and is hair analysis going to help find out what I am allergic to? How can I manage my child’s (or my own) asthma?. It is at this level that the book is worth reading.