• A photo of Noura Merhi and her 11-year-old son, taken in January this year. (Supplied to SBS )
Soon after Noura gave birth to her son, he started to develop life-threatening food allergies. Now, 11 years on, Noura tells SBS what it was like to care for a baby with allergies and how her son bravely manages life being allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish and sesame.
By
Noura Merhi, Presented by
Yasmin Noone

12 Sep 2018 - 12:29 PM  UPDATED 12 Sep 2018 - 4:53 PM

My son, who is now 11-years-old, was pretty much born with food allergies.

Early on in his life, he had very dry skin. We didn’t think that it was anything bad – we thought all babies were born like that. But I started to notice that when I ate certain foods [during breastfeeding], his eczema would flare up. He also started vomiting and became so dehydrated that we had to admit him into hospital several times.

I’m from Lebanon and our diet pretty much consists of nuts, lots of fish, dairy and wheat – it’s the Mediterranean diet. It was very scary because, at the time, I didn’t know that he was allergic to the foods [I was eating, that we was receiving through my breast milk].

We looked for answers. At one point, we met a great paediatrician who said: ‘I think your son is suffering from some kind of food allergy’. But to find out more, we had to go through an elimination diet, which involved me cutting out foods from my diet one-by-one, to see if there was reaction.

It was very scary because, at the time, I didn’t know that he was allergic to the foods [I was eating, that we was receiving through my breast milk].

The diet revealed that he was allergic to nuts, milk, soy and sesame. At the time, my son was only one month old and I was 27-years-old.

I was referred to a paediatric dietitian, who gave me advice on how to deal with the situation. I also saw an allergist who later confirmed his allergies when he was six-months-old, and prescribed him an EpiPen.

Beyond the initial diagnosis

The doctors recommended that I continue to breastfeed my son, so I did that until he was around 14 months. It was very hard, as I had to change my diet and couldn’t have any dairy, soy or nuts. But I found a great dietician who helped me to understand what I could eat. For example, I could have the calcium-fortified rice milk instead of dairy milk – it tasted horrible but it was a good source of calcium.

I also had to give up some cultural foods. We have a tradition in Lebanon [that we carried out when my son was born in Australia. It involves preparing a pudding that you give to visitors who come over to your house to say congratulations [when you’ve had a baby]. It’s called mighli and it’s mixture of spices and rice, and you cover the top with shredded coconut and nuts. I gave them to people when they left the house – I did not eat them.

A new food challenge at age 3

Eventually, my son grew out of the milk and soy allergies but at age three, he developed fish and seafood allergies.

That was a new challenge – I thought ‘if he can’t have fish, seafood or nuts, where does he get his omega 3 from?’ The dietitian suggested using canola oil and flax seeds as a substitute.

So now, he is allergic to nuts, peanuts, fish, seafood and sesame. He carries an EpiPen with him everywhere he goes because he is at risk of going into anaphylactic shock if he eats these allergens.

But I don’t give up. The most important thing, to me, is building awareness of his food allergies [in his community]. 

When he was a little boy, I was the only one who could give him food so I could control what he ate eat [and keep him safe]. Now that he’s older, he is aware of his allergies. But every child like him, who has gone through all of this and had food allergies all of their life, has a [very normal] fear of going into anaphylactic shock again.  

Sometimes, some kids at school tease him about his allergies – they don’t understand the consequences of what could happen if he consumes allergens. Some people just don’t get what a food allergy is – they think he’s just fussy with his food or he’s overreacting.

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But I don’t give up. The most important thing, to me, is building awareness of his food allergies [in his community]. So every year, I visit the school and give presentations about food allergies to raise awareness. I ensure his close friends know how to use the EpiPen, just in case.

You have to check constantly with the food sector to ensure the foods he has are still okay to have [as they can change the recipes]. You also can’t assume that people, even family and friends who are close, will remember he has an allergy. You have to always remind them.

Being aware is the only thing you can do because there’s no cure for food allergies. But at the same time, we work hard with him to make him strong. We try to teach him that having different kinds of food doesn’t make you different as a person.

Children with food allergies can still enjoy life – it’s just that we have to be extra careful.

If this article has raised an issue for you, or you are in need of food allergy support, contact Allergy & Anaphylactic Australia (A&AA) online. For information and advice A&AA, call 1300 728 000. In an emergency, always call 000.  

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