Well known in the business world for his successful Crazy John’s mobile phone company and leader of BRW’s “Young Rich” list for three years straight, John Ilhan is also making a scene for all the right reasons in the community sector. Dr Narelle Curtis reports.

For mobile phone giant “Crazy” John Ilhan, pledging $1 million to find a cure for life-threatening anaphylaxis is a family matter.

Ilhan’s five-year-old daughter Jaida has a severe allergy to peanuts. If she comes into contact with the humble legume, she will suffer from anaphylaxis – a condition which can be fatal if not quickly identified and treated.

Jaida’s condition was discovered when she was just two years old – an innocent fatherly kiss caused all the wrong reactions.

“I had eaten some peanuts that morning, gave her a kiss and her whole face came up,” Ilhan recalled. “Luckily for us, we found out about Jaida’s allergy from a kiss rather than eating nuts. If she’d eaten them, it could be a matter of life or death.”

Ilhan and his wife Patricia learned of Jaida’s allergy at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital emergency department, but it took 12 months to see an allergy specialist. As a result, the couple decided to do something to reduce waiting lists and also find a cure.

In 2003, just months after Jaida’s diagnosis with anaphylaxis, Ilhan was taken on a tour of the Murdoch Children’s Medical Research Institute by fellow telecommunications businessman Ryan O’Hare, a member of the institute’s development board at the time.

Based at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, the institute is the largest child health research institute in Australia, and investigates ways to prevent and treat conditions affecting babies, children and adolescents.

Ilhan was very impressed by the institute’s neonatal research, and he accepted a further invitation to attend the organisation’s marquee at the 2003 Spring Racing Carnival, but he had to cancel at the last minute. He called Ryan O’Hare on the morning of the event and pledged $50,000 to the institute’s neonatal research in lieu of attending.

The Ilhans however could see the need for more research into anaphylaxis and allergy, so in 2006 they set up the Ilhan Food Allergy Foundation and immediately committed $1 million for research.

Their main aim is to find a cure for anaphylaxis, which affects one in 5000 Australians and seems to be on the increase. The nation also has one of the world’s highest rates of allergic disorders. In the past 30 years the number of affected children has more than doubled, with one in three children suffering some kind of allergy.

One of the foundation’s first major donations was a $100,000 gift to the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in February this year. The gift will be used to identify prevention and treatment strategies for children who live with the risk of anaphylactic shock.

Director of the Murdoch Children’s Medical Research Institute, Professor Terry Dwyer AO, says the support of the foundation is critical. “We have the knowledge and passion to make major discoveries, but we couldn’t do it without the support of organisations such as the Ilhan Foundation.”

Ilhan said the decision to create the Ilhan Food Allergy Foundation came from the heart.” To see Jaida suffering from allergy attacks was heartbreaking. Both Patricia and I knew we had to do something about the problem.”

In just a few short months the Ilhan Foundation has raised the profile of the issue and made large contributions to research. In August it put on a conference which gathered the brightest medical minds in the world to find a cure to anaphylaxis.

The foundation also aims to effect change through education, and an allergy education program will soon be launched in schools.

If Ilhan’s crazy passion for business can prove just half as successful as his quest to help beat anaphylaxis and other allergies, he might play a vital role in helping many people live a much safer life.

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