May 6, 2011

$500 Million Price Tag For Food Allergies

Food allergies that result in lost work days, doctor visits and hospital care costs an annual $500 million, according to a new U.S. study.

Researchers used several databases to add up the cost of emergency room care, hospitalizations and visits to the physician's office for allergic reactions, reports Reuters. With these numbers, they estimated the cost of treatment nationwide, and reported these results in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Depending on the type of calculation used, Reuters reports that the total medical costs ranged from $225 million to $307 million, with doctor's visits comprising the biggest chunk of the cost at about $118 million.

Emergency department visits equaled to about $45 million, which is 20% of the total medical fees.

For every 100 Americans, four of them suffer from food allergies that are triggered by peanuts, milk, eggs, and other products such as soy and wheat. And food allergies among children have increased 18% from 1997 to 2007, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

The researchers, including pharmacist David Holdford at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond expected emergency room visits to cost the most annually, since food allergies can trigger anaphylaxis, a severe reaction that can cause breathing difficulty, hearth problems and even death, and requires immediate attention. However, they discovered that doctor's visits encompassed 52% of total medical costs.

"We were surprised that physician visits were more than half of the costs," says Holdford, who is also an investor in Johnson and Johnson, which makes allergy medications.

"I think what's happening is a lot of these (doctor) visits are not for acute visits," but for helping patients manage or prevent food allergies, Holdford adds.

The study found that an emergency room visit for food allergy costs $553, while in previous studies it shows that visits to the emergency room for asthma costs $345.

"We're not really sure why that is," Holdford says. But the study suggests that the medical cost of treating an allergic reaction to food was more than for similar conditions, and that people who have food allergies require more intensive treatment.

In addition, indirect costs of food allergies cost an annual amount of $115 million to $203 million. This cost includes missing work to take a sick child to the doctor.

The numbers estimated in the study are just the base of what it costs to deal with food allergies, Maria Acebal, vice president of research at the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, an advocacy group that helped fund the study says, told Reuters.

"This is the first attempt to try and quantify the economic cost of food allergies," Acebal told Reuters Health. These numbers do not include the cost of maintaining special diets, or arranging for special travel or food accommodations, for example.

Holdford also says that he would like to put a figure to the additional costs of managing food allergies and believes that "if you don't understand how big the problem is, it's hard to have discussions on ways to go about addressing it."

The study was published on April 11, 2011 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.


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