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26 September 2019

SA’s pollen count is rising, and people who don’t normally get hay fever may now be affected

With pollen counts on the rise, allergies are worsening every year. We chat to Professor Jonny Peter about what this means for our health.

Already more than 17 million South Africans suffer from hay fever, and this number is set to increase. This year saw some of the highest recorded pollen counts in history. Cities in Europe and the US experienced "pollen storms", and South Africa might not be far behind.

Earlier this month, we had a spike in pollen production, with Cape Town at a record high. Local scientists are therefore calling for an urgent expansion of the country’s pollen monitoring programme.

Professor Jonny Peter, Head of the Allergy Unit at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Lung Institute is responsible for monitoring pollen in South Africa and says that given the rise in pollen production globally, it has become crucial now more than ever to keep a close eye on pollen.

Pollen monitoring is no easy process, Peter explains. It's challenging and requires many resources.   

“We have to find a place for it, and have electricity to keep the pumps going. Then we have to replace the consumables and pay for the expertise of people to read it.

“On average, a trap costs R150 000 to run over a 12-month period.

“And it’s very important to monitor pollen in different regions. At the moment, we’ve got the funds to monitor six provinces, and we’re now trying to raise funds so that there’s at least one trap in every province.

“If we have more pollen data to work with, we’ll be able to develop a public warning system if and when our region becomes vulnerable to these types of storms," he adds.

The traps are located in the main urban centres where the population density is the greatest, says Peter.

The UCT Lung Institute’s pollen monitoring website, Pollen Count, provides the most accurate weekly pollen counts. Peter explains that no country in the world has managed to provide daily pollen counts, because of the way it needs to be monitored. 

Bloemfontein has the highest count

While the level of pollen counts depends on the time of the year, within this past week, Cape Town’s levels have dropped slightly, but earlier this month the city experienced record levels, the highest since 2012.

To give you an idea of how high the counts were: a very high count is considered to be above 50 grains per cubic metre. Two weeks ago, the count in Cape Town was 235 grains per cubic metre. 

However, the city with the highest pollen count at the moment is Bloemfontein.

Is climate change to blame? 

Data from Europe suggest that climate change is really starting to impact pollen: the pollen seasons are getting longer, and the total amount of pollen is increasing, says Peter. 

“Their data (we don’t have this modelling data for Southern Africa), estimate that pollen counts will quadruple in the next 20 to 30 years, and that’s pretty alarming.

“There are several factors related to climate change that fuel increases in allergens. These include carbon dioxide (CO2) and other heat-trapping gases that are causing the earth’s temperature to rise. 

“This, in turn, increases the growth rate of plants and the amount and potency of pollen in the air. To sum it up, CO2 is like miracle fertiliser for pollen and we’re producing it at a rapid rate.”

Can you suffer, even if you aren’t normally affected?

Due to climate change, Europe, for instance, is producing a lot of a very allogeneic plant called ragweed. Although it hasn’t yet been detected in South Africa, ragweed is migrating and appearing in new areas, explains Peter.

“If we were to get ragweed – and it is a possibility that it would come south from the more tropical areas in Africa – what would happen is this new allogeneic species would definitely drive up allogeneic symptoms and people who previously weren’t affected, would now suffer.”

When should you see an allergist?

If your symptoms start earlier and worsen each year, would it be necessary to stock up on more antihistamines, or get the allergen identified by a professional?

According to Peter, if you have mild symptoms that aren’t greatly bothering you, there’s nothing to be concerned about. However, if symptoms are problematic, especially if you are asthmatic, it could be potentially dangerous and Peter advises that you get a diagnosis.

“There aren’t that many allergists in South Africa, but there are many GPs that have the skills and qualifications and additional training in allergies, and they are across the country,” he says.

The Allergy Foundation of South Africa (AFSA) links people to doctors around the country that have allergy skills.

“So just going to a chemist to get antihistamines works up to a point, but I would encourage people who have more ongoing symptoms to get a diagnosis and work through it.” 

What should you do on high pollen count days?

Peter gives the following tips to protect yourself on days with high pollen counts:

  • Pay attention to how long you leave laundry on the line: pollen settles on your clothing while drying. Use a tumble dryer instead.
  • Needless to say, get your medication on board.
  • Stay indoors on windy days.
  • Keep windows closed on high pollen count days.
  • Try to set activities in areas where pollen counts are lower. 

'Pollen a threat to human health'

That climate change is affecting the environment we’re living in is worrying, says Peter, and adds that the increase in pollen is a threat to human health, going hand in hand with air quality:

“Air pollution synergises and actually makes allergies worse. So I think that it’s another way that the environment is sounding an alarm bell to us, that we need to start paying attention to this.

"We need to start thinking about our activities, what we’re doing, and how we care for the environment, because the consequences for our own health will be potentially significant in the decades to come."

The UCT Lung Institute’s pollen monitoring programme’s goal is to set up another three traps within the next few months.

“Our aim is to have national coverage in place before the end of the year, which is why we are calling on the public to help us reach our target by way of a crowdfunding campaign.”

Donate to the Pollen Monitoring Campaign.

* World Environmental Health Day (WEHD) is on 26 September every year. The theme this year is climate change challenges.

Image: iStock
 
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