Allergies are not to be sneezed at

The allergy tram can be visited in the Swiss capital, Bern. www.ahaswiss.ch

One in five Swiss suffer from allergies, at a cost to the health system of around SFr1 billion ($770 million) each year.

This content was published on March 3, 2004 - 10:50

A national awareness campaign has just been launched to tackle the problem, which experts warn is on the rise.

From Wednesday an "allergy tram" will be driving around the Swiss capital, Bern.

Run by the Swiss Centre for Allergies, Skin and Asthma, known as “aha!”, the tram will be offering information and advice about allergies for the next two months, as well as quick allergy tests for pollen, dust mites and food.

The campaign will be going nationwide from September and will even include some sporting events.

“Although allergies are very widespread, the population is not very well informed about them,” the centre’s Annelise Lundvik told swissinfo.

“Many don’t know that just a few simple precautions can really improve the lives of sufferers,” she added.

Pollen allergies

Lundvik says that in many cases it is now possible to stop hay fever turning into asthma, which currently happens in 30 per cent of all pollen allergies. And dust mite allergies can be combated with a few simple tricks within the home, she says.

“The fact is most people don’t even know what’s causing their hay fever,” said Lundvik.

Apart from making sufferers’ lives easier, raising awareness about allergies could also help lower health costs. Asthma treatments alone cost the Swiss health system SFr200 million a year.

“If you consider all types of allergies and the indirect costs that they incur such as the loss of salary and incapacity benefit, you easily reach the figure of SFr1 billion,” said Lundvik.

Fatal

The allergy problem is not just limited to Switzerland; it is prevalent in most western countries. And in most cases the biggest culprit is airborne pollen.

Hayfever is estimated to affect between 15 and 20 per cent of the Swiss, with dust mite allergies ranking second, with 400,000 sufferers.

But the campaign is also targeting less common allergies, such as reactions to insects or foods such as nuts, seafood and eggs. These are estimated to affect four per cent of the population.

“Some food allergies and bee and wasp stings can cause anaphylactic shock, which is why we must inform the public,” explained Brunello Wüthrich, an allergy expert.

Anaphylactic shock is a life-threatening reaction to a seemingly harmless substance, which can result in the swelling of the throat and loss of consciousness.

In Switzerland about three to five people die each year from reactions to insect bites or stings.

Lundvik said these people were probably unaware of the seriousness of their condition or didn’t have their emergency kit – normally containing adrenaline – with them at the time.

Too clean

But despite the progress made in treating allergies, the number of people affected by them is on the rise.

“In 1926 less than one in a hundred Swiss was allergic to pollen. In 1958 it had already risen to one in twenty, and now we are talking about one in seven being allergic to pollen,” Wüthrich told swissinfo.

“At the same time, there’s also been a rise in skin allergies, particularly neuro-dermatological ones,” added the professor.

Specialists say there could be many causes for this increase. One theory is that it is genetic, while others blame climate change and too much hygiene.

Some experts say the increase could also be due to the Western lifestyle, with its lack of daily routine, stress, increased road traffic and changing eating habits.

swissinfo, Fabio Mariani (translation: Isobel Leybold)

Key facts

Between 15-20 per cent of Swiss suffer from hayfever.
400,000 people are allergic to dust mites.
Only about four per cent suffer from allergies to insect stings and food.
Common food allergies include seafood, nuts and eggs.

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