Page last updated at 01:15 GMT, Thursday, 16 April 2009 02:15 UK
Concern over rise in allergies

An allergy epidemic is sweeping parts of the world. Sue Emmett reports on a huge study in India which researchers hope will help them discover why.

Indian children
Two Indian cities could help scientists uncover the secrets of allergies

It has long been suspected that the environment and the modern way of life are in some way responsible for the rise in allergies in the Western world.

In the Indian cities of Mysore and Bangalore the affluent middle classes are growing at a rapid pace and its members are pursuing increasingly Westernised lifestyles.

They live alongside poorer rural and urban communities which retain a more traditional way of life.

As the ranks of the middle class have expanded, doctors have observed that so has the incidence of allergic asthma.

Social groups

Project leader Dr Mahesh Rao says researchers have established that there has been a 50% rise in asthma in the area in past five years.

Yet the more traditional communities are the least affected.

This appears to follow a pattern that has been seen in other parts of the world where Westernisation has taken place, he says.


Dr Mahesh Rao explains how the Indian middle classes are more susceptible to allergies than those living in rural communities.

The speed and scale of development in these two south Indian cities plus the proximity of different social groups has made them ideal locations for the examination of the impact of modern lifestyle on allergy.

The study team will compare and contrast a number of factors including diet, exercise, hygiene and the keeping of animals, in 20,000 homes in southern India.

Research has never been done on this scale before - we will be able to establish a huge database of valuable information
Dr Clare Mills
Institute of Food Research

Dr Rao said: "The main hypothesis we are setting out to examine is that affluence and the modern lifestyle is related to the rise in allergic asthma.

"In the traditional communities, children are exposed to bacteria and animals at an early age.

"They are generally breastfed, eat healthy food and get plenty of exercise.

"They do not have access to junk foods, perfumes, soaps and chemicals which we suspect may be factors in the growth of allergic asthma."

Stark difference

Dr Rao is concerned that unless more is understood about the causes of allergic asthma, the number of cases will continue to rise.

This could present an alarming economic and social burden as India continues to become more westernised, he warns.

An allergy is when the immune system reacts to a harmless substance such as a food or pollen, as if it isn't safe
A severe allergy can cause a potentially life threatening shock known as anaphylaxis
An intolerance does not affect the immune system
An intolerance is generally not life threatening and the symptoms less severe
An intolerance is being unable to digest certain foods such as lactose in milk

His team is also carrying out related studies into food allergy.

The research is part of a series of studies taking place in many countries - including the UK - with the aid of European funding.

Norwich-based Dr Clare Mills, co-ordinator of the EuroPrevall projects, said: "One of the things about India is that they have such a stark difference in lifestyles virtually within the same postal districts.

"We are hoping that this study into asthma along with a raft of other studies into food allergy will help unlock some of the mysteries of allergy."

Dr Mills, who is based at the UK's Institute of Food Research, said: "What is unique about these projects is the sheer size.

"Research has never been done on this scale before, across so many countries, using the same protocols.

"We will be able to establish a huge database of valuable information.

"For example we have eight studies, one of which is in the UK, looking at food allergy from infancy.

"We recruit mothers before they give birth, examine what they eat during pregnancy and monitor their babies afterwards. Ultimately we would like to follow them to adulthood.

"We are already finding big differences in the prevalence in food allergy across borders. Allergy is lower in Athens than it is in Amsterdam and we are hoping to find out why that is."

'Huge problem'

The project is also attempting to establish the cost to the Western world of the high incidence of allergy in a series of studies of several European countries.

Promo image of house

It is thought that the cost may turn out to be much higher than at first feared.

It will look not just at the cost of providing health and support services but also at lost education and work days.

Allergy expert Dr Adrian Morris says that occupational asthma is a huge problem in the UK with 2,000 new cases being reported every year.

Dermatitis is another big problem, when workers come into contact with a substance to which they are allergic.

In recent years the UK health service has been hit by allergy among its staff to latex, particularly the gloves that are worn by doctors and nurses.

Tanya Dodd, from Scarborough in North Yorkshire, was a trainee nurse when she suffered from an anaphylactic shock in the middle of a hospital ward.


"I can't go to hospital because there is so much latex around. If I were ill I would have to be treated on the scene" - Tanya Dodd

It was only a few months before she was due to sit her qualifying exams but she realised her allergy to latex had become so serious that she could never set foot in a normal hospital ward again - even if she were ill herself.

"It has turned my life upside down. I had to give up a job that I loved. I am now so sensitive to latex that I can react to particles of it in the air," she said.

"I have to cook all my own food because a lot of prepared food will have come into contact with latex. Food handlers wear latex gloves in the factory."

"I am having to gut my house and adapt everything in it to make sure there is no latex present."

Dr Morris said the cost of occupational allergy can be high.

Bakers can become allergic to wheat flour; hairdressers to hair dye and florists to flowers. The symptoms may not occur until after repeated years of exposure.

He adds: "Any advances that lead to either the prevention of treatment of these conditions are welcome."

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