NEWS

Allergies are the plague of the 21st century, experts warn after a nationwide survey covering seven towns

Atmospheric pollution, smoking, unclean indoor atmospheres and modern society’s isolation from nature are believed to be the main factors behind an increase in the incidence of allergies and asthma, afflictions that have become rampant in the developed world, including Greece, in recent years. Recent epidemiological studies reveal the existence of an enemy that might be invisible to residents of urban centers but is rapidly gaining ground. Half a century ago there were no allergy specialists in Greece, but allergies have become one of the most frequently occurring conditions that send people to doctors. In Europe and North America, they are seen as the 21st century plague. Asthma and rhinitis Many of the questions surrounding the mechanisms that create allergic reactions have not yet been answered, but studies show that 20 to 30 percent of the world’s population suffers from asthma and 40 percent from allergic rhinitis (30 percent seasonal and 10 percent year-round). In Europe, 10-25 percent of people suffer from seasonal respiratory allergies. (The wide range is mainly due to the differing geographical distribution and the use of different criteria in the studies.) In Greece, according to data presented at a recent event at the Goethe Institute in Thessaloniki by Professor Dimitris Gioulekas, 5 percent of adults and 11.8 percent of children suffer from asthma, making a total of 700,000 Greeks. Figures from the USA show that 26 million Americans suffer from asthma, marking a 30 percent increase during the 1990s. Deaths from asthma between 1979 and 1998 rose by 109 percent, from 2,500 to 5,500 annually. In Greece, the increase cannot be estimated since in previous decades no distinction was made and no records were kept to form the basis of a comparison. Nevertheless, the group of researchers under Gioulekas, in cooperation with other scientists from seven different towns in Greece and meteorologists recording climatic conditions that often contribute to outbreaks of asthma, have over the past 15 years been recording the main factors that cause allergies. They are trying to set up a database with information for most areas of Greece that will help them to set up calendar charts to let people know the periods in which allergens are in the atmosphere, and to provide other information for the public and doctors. Allergens Most allergens (plants, medicines, jewelry, insects, cosmetics, rubber, domestic pets, rugs) are airborne. Micro-particles (including pollen and fungi) invisible to the naked eye circulate in the atmosphere, causing allergic reactions such as rhinitis, conjunctivitis and asthma. Measurements of airborne allergens were made using Burkard apparatus in Athens, Thessaloniki, Iraklion, Rhodes, Kavala, Ptolemaida, Halkidiki and Myconos, of the fluctuations of 16 species of pollen and 15 fungi considered the most prevalent in Greece. It was found that pollen from cereals (including wheat), the olive, Parietaria (nettle), cypress and Chenopodium vulvaria (Stinking Goosefoot) are the greatest irritants, provoking positive reactions in skin tests on most asthma patients. Among the fungi, the top five places went to Alternaria, Cladosporium, Aspergillus, Fusarium, and Riz. nigricans. Around Thessaloniki, cereals and wild herbs (a groups which account for 24 percent of the planet’s vegetation) caused allergic reactions in over 40 percent of tests on 1,311 asthmatic patients. According to Gioulekas, just one individual rye plant can produce 4.2 million pollen seeds, and one corn plant 10 million. A website (www.aero allergen.gr) was set up to brief Olympic teams on conditions in Athens during the Games, and is perhaps one of the study’s most important results. It was used by over 4,000 athletes and other members of Olympic missions who face problems with allergies or asthma. The site has been visited by 10,850 people over the past year, just 6,000 of them in the past three months.