A Family History Of Allergies

I am an atopic patient and I belong to an atopic family. It means there is a family history of allergies in my family. Most members of my family suffer to some extent from allergies. My mother, who is still alive and kicking at 88, never showed any allergic symptoms while my father who died at age 70 suffered from asthma, allergic rhinitis and eczema.  So we must have inherited the susceptibility from my father. However, as far as I know, none of his direct relatives showed any similar chronic illness. Apparently there is no family history of allergies on my father’s side. It seems that it all started with him. But how did he get it in the first place? I have worked out a hypothetical theory.

My parents were originally from a mountain region of Algeria where it’s very hot in summer and cold in winter. They endured harsh weather and extreme poverty but didn’t have to put up with pollution and processed food. They lived in a small village perched halfway up a hill with no running water, electricity or school. My father went on his own for a few months to a mission school in a remote village located at the top of the hill where he learned to read and write French a little. He was a normal healthy boy and never mentioned having any ailment at this stage.

In 1940, at the age of no more than 16, he was the only one in his extended family to be drafted in the French army to fight against Nazi Germany. Probably because he understood French when most of his peers were illiterate. Although he spent about four years at war, he told me very little about his time in the army. The only thing I know is that he was in the German capital at the fall of Berlin. If I didn’t see his service record book, listing all the campaigns he was in, I would have doubts he ever went to WW2.

Now, before you ask me what does my father’s participation in WW2 have to do with our subject of family history of allergies, let me point out that I am trying to pin down the origin of his disease (and mine). I do believe that he contracted his chronic illness during his war time. Although he was a healthy country boy, the extremes of European winters must have had a toll on his system. Of course this is just my personal belief not grounded in medical evidence. I do not have enough information to substantiate my opinion, but there is nothing else I can think of that would have caused the onset of his condition. He developed asthma and allergic rhinitis and later on suffered from eczema for a period of 10 years (according to his account). While the former two conditions stayed with him for life, he only relapsed into the latter a few years before he passed away.

My mother had 7 children, six boys and one girl. One died in infancy while the older who was suffering from severe asthma, rhinitis as well as epilepsy died in his late twenties. Of the remaining five, only the youngest has been spared from the allergic syndrome.  His three brothers (including me) have asthma and allergic rhinitis while his sister suffered since childhood from urticaria that has later turned into psoriasis. At the age of 21 and not long after my elder brother’s death, I contracted athlete’s foot, eczema, IBS, food allergies, food intolerance, recurrent headaches, panic attacks and other symptoms, roughly in that order. Thus I became the most atopic member of the family.

To carry on with my father’s story (if you are not bored to death), after the war and his demobilisation he spent some time in Belgium and France doing unskilled jobs in factories. He then returned to his home village to be reunited with his family after so many years abroad. He got married and my late brother was born soon after. However, he couldn’t stay for there was no work and no hope for indigenous people like him in rural French Algeria. As far as I can remember from his accounts, he went back to France to work in car factories for a couple of years before returning again to his village. Most families had a small plot of land on the hillside and/or cattle, sheep or chicken coops from which they managed a meagre subsistence. The able young villagers were forced to move to large cities (like Algiers) and those who could, emigrated to metropolitan France to do unskilled work in factories. After his return from France, my father went to work with his brother in the main hospital in Algiers. He was hired as a porter in a psychiatric ward and thus began a job for life. Later he moved his family (my mother and 2 older brothers) to Algiers. They lived in a shared family accommodation in the heights of the capital where I was born in 1957.

My father made up his way to a nursing position without gaining any relevant qualification. His lack of education didn’t enable him to get any formal training. However, because he could read French, they gradually allowed him to administer, under supervision, medicines and give injections to patients. I also noticed when I was young his very high respect for doctors. Working with hospital doctors (most of whom were of European extraction), he felt privileged and talked about them with admiration. For the indigenous population, becoming a teacher was a very high aspiration, and being a doctor was the pinnacle of education. I remember as a child he would always take me to the same doctor he wanted to befriend.  Although that practitioner was Algerian, he looked European and spoke only in impeccable French. His prescriptions contained no less than 10 items, invariably including antibiotics, corticosteroids, strengthening medicine, coughing syrup and I can’t even imagine what more was needed for a simple childhood ailment. I later found out that he was somewhat of a rogue and my father’s respect for him was misplaced. Unfortunately, by the time I realised and changed doctor, the damage was done. He implicitly encouraged my father to give me as much medication as possible, especially coughing syrup, antibiotics and corticosteroids.

After gaining independence from French rule, the country turned socialist. Staff working in public services and state-owned companies would help themselves to almost anything they wanted to take home. Pilfering was hardly frowned upon. Accordingly, my father would bring home all kind of drugs and medication, including first aid items, syringes and needles, and even antibiotics and steroid tablets, he would use on himself and on family members. As the saying goes, a little knowledge is dangerous. Because of his experience at the hospital, he decided to appoint himself as the family healthcare provider. He started treating us for any ailment real or imaginary, and not just with over the counter medicines. He was mostly passionate about giving injections and couldn’t wait for an opportunity. Neighbours would flock to our home when they were prescribed injections instead of going to the local pharmacist who would charge them. Despite my mother’s protestations about the hassle it caused, he kept doing it for free. But the worst wasn’t about the neighbours, it was about me.

To come back to our family history of allergies topic, I suffered from asthma and rhinitis for as far as I can remember. My father in his haste to play doctor, decided to medicate me himself. After all, medical practitioners didn’t cure me, and they were always giving me the same remedies. So, what’s the point of paying a consultation fee. For my asthma, he began to give me an antibiotic jab every time I had an attack. I remember him saying ‘this is a 1 million unit Penicillin, it’s gonna stop your whizzing fast’, and it didn’t. He was making a grave mistake by confusing Penicillin with Theophylline, a drug used in the treatment of respiratory diseases including asthma. His second error of judgement was to give me corticosteroid tablets for a rhinitis that plagued me on a daily basis. What is supposed to be a medication for a short-term treatment (one or two weeks, like antibiotics) I was made to take for many years continuously. I always wondered why I was tiny (smaller than my 2 younger brothers) with withered arms. Many years later I learned that long-term use of steroids by children can affect their growth hormone. When I was old enough to take charge of my health, I stopped taking them except when absolutely necessary, under a doctor’s supervision and on a short-term basis. My father was addicted to them; he never stopped taking them and his health never stopped deteriorating.

My father had undoubtedly noble intentions; nobody wants to see their child suffer without trying to help them. Nevertheless, he had no business dabbling with serious medication. If you are reading this and you or your child suffer from allergy, don’t make the mistake of looking for a quick fix; and never ever use steroids or antibiotics without the express order and supervision of a medical practitioner. My elder son Ryan who is now 7 suffered from food allergies and eczema until age 5. He was given all the usual paraphernalia of allergy treatments by his GP. Fortunately, he has grown out of it like most children do. He still has to endure a nasty perennial rhinitis and asthma, but he only occasionally uses steroids and similar medication.

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