Tourist Dies of Allergic Reaction to Tahini

South African did not know that tahini includes sesame, to which she was allergic.

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Bottles of tahini.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

A 30-year-old tourist from South Africa died Tuesday in Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem after eating tahini at a restaurant in Israel.

The woman, who was allergic to sesame, did not know that tahini (“tehina”) was made from sesame seeds and developed a severe allergic reaction shortly after her meal. A Magen David Adom team resuscitated her and took her to Shaare Zedek Medical Center. She arrived at the hospital unconscious and in a state of cardiac arrest, and was hospitalized in the intensive care unit, where she was diagnosed as brain-dead. Her family agreed to donate her organs, and she was taken to the Department of Organ Transplantation at Beilinson Hospital, Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva.

The allergy to sesame, which is common in Israel and around the world, belongs to one of the three food groups that cause the most common allergic sensitivities, together with foods such as eggs and milk. “There is no doubt that a case like this should not have happened in 2014,” said Dr. Nancy Agmon-Levin, chairwoman of the Israel Association of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. “It is obvious that someone who knows that he is allergic must avoid certain foods, but even if he gets into a situation like that, there is treatment that must be administered immediately. People who are allergic to sesame or to any other food need to keep an epinephrine autoinjector with them at all times. An epinephrine autoinjector is easy to use and can even be used through clothing. When the drug is injected as soon as symptoms appear, it provides a half-hour window to seek medical help.”

Agmon-Levin added that the epinephrine autoinjector and, in some cases, an antihistamine pill are part of a kit that allergic people in Israel, particularly children, keep with them wherever they go. Such a kit evidently could have saved the tourist’s life. “People who suffer from life-threatening allergies find themselves in danger every time they walk into a restaurant and cannot know with complete certainty what ingredients they are being exposed to in the food that is served to them,” she said.

Israel has substantial experience when it comes to food allergies. Approximately 100,000 children − roughly three percent of Israel’s children − are diagnosed as suffering from life-threatening allergies. The children themselves carry an epinephrine autoinjector and even practice using it in allergy treatment centers. “This is a disease that one can easily die from, but one can avoid having things deteriorate to that point. All anyone needs to do is use the epinephrine autoinjector,” Agmon-Levin said.