Ever hear of someone who has almost 40 allergies and eczema? Well, meet Shivaika Sewlal. This is her story
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Have you ever met someone with almost 40 allergies?
I have. Her name is Shivaika Sewlal. Well, we didn’t actually meet, I came across a few of her videos on Tiktok.
Shiv, as she prefers to be called, is a social media influencer who uses Tiktok and Instagram to spread awareness about people living with allergies and eczema.
She is not a qualified allergist but she does live with just under 40 different allergies which range from being unable to eat nuts and shellfish to some pretty rare ones such as olive oil and even certain types of trees.
I spoke to Sewlal, 20, to get more of an idea of how she and her family cope.
She is a social media advocate and influencer. “I make humorous videos on social media about serious situations in order to create awareness around the many types of allergies and eczema,” she says.
“Deaths caused by allergies could have been avoided if people knew more about theme. It is now my mission to use my platforms to create awareness and show how I can live a healthy, happy and normal life despite such limitations.”
The Allergy Foundation of South Africa says: “Food allergies have become more common worldwide in the past few decades. In some areas of the world, food allergies occur in 8-10% of young children. In South Africa, food allergy occurs in around 2.5% of children aged one to three.
This figure is much higher in children with moderate to severe eczema, who have food allergies in around 30% to 40% of cases.”
So how does one become allergic to something? The Mayo Clinic says allergies occur when your immune system reacts to a foreign substance such as pollen, bee venom, pet dander (pet skin cells), or a certain food that does not normally cause a reaction in most people.
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“Your immune system then produces antibodies. When you have allergies, your immune system makes antibodies that identify a particular allergen as harmful, even though it isn't. When you come into contact with the allergen, your immune system's reaction can inflame your skin, sinuses, airways or digestive system.”
Allergies may affect people differently. For example, I fight a yearly pollen war in spring, a war where I am never the victor. At the same time, my partner happily strolls outside, with clear sinuses.
The severity of allergies varies from person to person and can range from minor irritation to a potentially life-threatening emergency. While most allergies can't be cured, treatments can help relieve symptoms.
Wilmi Hudsonberg, spokesperson of allergy pharmaceutical firm, Pharma Dynamics, says: “South Africa has one of the highest prevalence rates of allergic disorders in the developing world and we are fast catching up to developed countries such as the US, New Zealand, Australia and Europe.
“Statistics also show that the prevalence of allergies is increasing more rapidly in disadvantaged communities and that this population group tends to be more heavily burdened by severe allergic conditions,”
Sewlal says: “When I was growing up, there was no representation of eczema and allergies, especially on social media. I am now proud to say that I have successfully raised awareness in millions of people all over the world. The analytics on my accounts are a good indication of how much of a need there was for awareness and representation for eczema and allergies.”
Sewlal receives, on average, 15.2 million views on Tiktok and reaches over 9.5 million Instagram accounts a month. Beginning her social media journey in October 2020, she has since amassed over 250 000 followers on Tiktok and 23 000 followers on Instagram.
“I get comments and messages daily from followers, sharing their stories with me, and together we have successfully created a community for all eczema and allergy sufferers.”
As with most allergy sufferers, Sewlal was born with her allergies.
“I personally think it’s better because I never had to adjust my way of life, this is my norm. I was diagnosed at a very young age after my parents began introducing new foods to me. My eczema was diagnosed a few weeks after I was born.”
Sewlal keeps a full list of all her allergies on the fridge at home. She also gives printed copies of her allergies to people who will be preparing foods for her at events or, sometimes, at restaurants.
This is a list of Sewlal’s allergies:
1. All nuts including peanuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts and pecans.
3. Any wheat products including bread, pizza, pasta and roti
6. Any cow’s milk products including cheese, yoghurt and ice cream
10. Olive oil and olives
11. Anything containing citric acid including oranges, lemons and juice.
14. Kiwi fruit
16. Any goat’s milk products.
19. Sunflower seeds and sunflower oil
20. Most chocolate (contains soya and milk)
21. Most sweets (contain citric acid)
22. Most cereal (contain wheat, oats, soya, etc)
24. Most soft drinks (contain citric acid)
25. Most fruit juice (contain citric acid)
26. Most canned food (contain citric acid)
27. Most marinated meat/ sausage (contain citric acid/ soy sauce)
28. Most berries (contain citric acid)
34. Certain grasses and trees
35. Bee stings
37. Dust Mites
Sewlal’s parents and extended family experienced a lot of stress over the years. “I was the only one with severe eczema and multiple allergies, it was very new territory,” she says.
“I also didn’t make it easier for my parents growing up. Whether it was the countless phone calls to come pick me up from school because I ate another child’s lunch or when I played sports and forgot my asthma pump.”
Even when at home, Sewlal was a danger to herself. “I was a hazard, especially when I was fiddling with my EpiPen and it auto injected through my finger. I didn’t exactly make my situation any better. Fortunately, I learnt and was able to understand my allergies better after each incident.”
Despite all these obstacles, Sewlal has learnt to embrace her allergies and eczema.
“I’m coping with my diet and I still continue to find new foods that I can actually eat. It’s like an exciting and fun treasure hunt. I recently found pasta made from beetroot, lasagne sheets made from rice and even chocolate biscuits that are made from rice and tapioca flour.
“Having a positive mindset really helps me during a reaction. My family’s constant encouragement and help always makes me feel safe and loved.”
She rarely eats out at restaurants because of the potential dangers involved. If Sewlal does venture out, she prefers to take her own meal or eat beforehand.
(And I thought eating out as a vegan was difficult.)
She also has to be extremely careful when leaving her home. “I always carry my EpiPen injection and asthma pump with me. Even if I don’t plan to eat anything, I still need to take precautions because the smell of certain allergens also affects me. I make sure that all my friends and family – or whoever I am with – know how to use the EpiPen in case anything happens.”
On the sensitivity of her allergies, Sewlal says: “In high school, I touched my desk and then touched my face when applying my cream to certain areas. Those areas immediately started to swell and I had to be sent home. I assume someone sitting there before me ate something I’m allergic to and left crumbs which I accidentally touched.”
Asked if her life has ever been in danger, she replies: “When I was 12 I went to a restaurant with my family and I told the waitress that I was allergic to nuts. However, they still put cashews in my chicken. I started to feel sick straight after the first bite.
“Thankfully, I was with my parents and my mum rushed me to hospital straight away. This is a big factor as to why I am reluctant to eat out at restaurants.”
Despite having to live such a strict life, Sewlal says she is actually happy to live with eczema and her allergies.
“If I’d been born with perfect skin and no allergies, I wouldn’t be the person I am proud to be today. I am strong and I am resilient. I have a strong and support structure of friends and family who understand and protect me.
“I also have a large support structure online. If there is one thing that allergies have taught me, it is to be grateful. I’m grateful for the food I can eat and I am grateful for the delicious meals I am not allergic to. There are many people who are worse off than me.”
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If you had a message for South Africans living with allergies, what would it be?
“Go to an allergist if you have either an allergy, eczema or both. I went to an allergist for the first time when I was 20 and she answered all my questions. I’ve been to countless specialists for my eczema and allergies and none of them eve referred me to an allergist. I never understood why creams would only help my eczema in the short term. It was because my allergies constantly trigger my eczema.
“Going to an allergist not only answered many of my questions but also gave me hope that I can be helped.”
You can visit allergyfoundation.co.za to find an allergist in your area. If you do not have an allergy, please do be understanding of those who do. If someone is trying to explain their allergy to you, they’re not trying to be difficult, so just listen. Most people do not dismiss people with allergies on purpose; rather it’s a lack of understanding that needs to be addressed to potentially save lives in the future.