Research & Innovation Information Centre
Tackling allergies and asthma
It is estimated that between 15% and 30% of Europe's population suffers from some sort of allergic illness such as asthma or hay fever. By 2015 that number may rise to half of Europe's population. Asthma is especially commonplace. It is a major cause of hospitalisation among children in western societies and some 5-15% of children are affected by it. Studies show that asthma cases doubled in Western Europe between 1990 and 2000.
Causes of allergies
Allergies are an over-reaction of the immune system to foreign substances. When in contact with these substances the immune system has an unexpected hypersensitive reaction to elements which would otherwise be harmless. There are hundreds of substances, or allergens, known to trigger allergies. These elements can affect the skin, eyes, respiratory system, and other organs.
The development of allergies can be hereditary, environmental or related to the lifestyle of a person. It can happen at any age but a person will most likely develop allergies at a very young age. Studies show that allergic tendencies are embedded in more than one gene making individuals with a family history of allergies more likely to develop allergic reactions than those who do not.
Outdoor air pollution is suspected to cause allergies. Data suggests that this is more prevalent in larger cities than in the countryside, but studies show that the degree of allergies suffered by people does not directly correspond to the level of air pollution of that city. In Europe, there are very large variations – up to 20 times – between different urban centres in the prevalence of asthma and other allergies. The indoor environment in which people live also plays its part. Homes with carpeting and other soft furnishings have a high likeliness of containing substances such as dust mites, pet fur, and gas fumes that can trigger allergies.
Young children seem particularly susceptible to allergies. A quarter of all children in Europe are known to be affected by one allergy or another. In some areas it rises to as much as one-third.
Allergic illnesses are usually not life threatening, but they do put a strain on public health resources, work and school productivity, and can seriously affect the quality of life of the individuals concerned. Allergies are a leading cause of children missing school. In the adult population, 70% of those affected say that allergies limit their daily activities. Days lost to allergies and health care for asthma cost Britain about €1.4 billion a year. The European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Associations (EFA) claims that asthma is responsible for 9 billion lost working days in the European Union.
Lifestyle to blame?
Few scientists would argue that occurrences of allergies in the general European population is increasing fast. Why this is happening is far from certain.
Extensive genetic alterations cannot alone explain this upsurge, but environmental and lifestyle have been identified as potential risk factors. The overly clean and sanitised western lifestyle may be to blame. Research suggest that newborn children raised in very hygienic environments may actually become more prone to allergies later in their lives than children who grew up surrounded by animals, dirt and even other children.
Treating and controlling allergies
Allergies such as asthma cannot be cured, but they can be controlled and treated. Chronic and acute conditions will usually require extended medical care. However, many debate the effectiveness of treating allergies simply through drug treatments. They claim that specific treatments that focus on avoiding allergic substances can greatly benefit patients with allergies.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) claims that preventive measures may also go a long way in limiting the prevalence of allergies. This includes avoiding exposure to tobacco smoke, especially during pregnancy and early childhood, avoiding damp housing conditions, reducing indoor air pollutants, breast-feeding for the first 6 months, and generally eliminating irritating substances in occupational environments.
Extensive research is being conducted in the field of allergies in Europe and around the world. One network that is especially active in this area is the Global Allergy and Asthma European Network (GALEN). It is a network of 26 research centres and associations whose objective is to enhance the quality of research on allergies with a view to knowing more about and finding remedies to the allergic illnesses that afflict such a large number of Europeans.