Allergies and respiratory diseases in town and country – On the increase
The third dialogue forum in the series "The risks of living in Munich – Perceived and actual" at the Bavarian State Library on 26 October 2006
Between 24 and 32 million people in Germany suffer from allergies. Every year, 3,000 people die from the effects of asthma. The third dialogue forum was attended by a large number of allergy sufferers, who listened to the keynote presentations with great interest and had many questions for the distinguished allergists.s.
Unmistakable trend – Complex mechanisms
Prof. H.-Erich Wichmann, Director of the Institute of Epidemiology at the GSF, cited a number of studies in his explanation of how asthma and allergies were spreading. "The frequency of asthma, allergies, and associated diseases is seen to be increasingly steadily throughout the country," he said. But the results of these studies revealed large regional variations: "Allergies are less common in rural areas than in towns and cities." Their frequency increases with the size of the community.
But Wichmann went on to say that the causes of this phenomenon were not yet clear. One possibility being discussed is an overlap between "rural protective factors" and "urban risk factors". Given the uncertain nature of the data, it is too early to make any specific recommendations on the action required.
What is more, the once comparatively low allergy rate in the eastern federal states has been rising steadily and will soon reach the same level as in the west. One of the possible reasons for this is that the people there have adopted a more western lifestyle.
Systematic and individual treatment
"Allergic diseases are one of the great health challenges to modern society," emphasised Prof. Johannes Ring, Director of the Clinic and Polyclinic for Dermatology and Allergy am Biederstein at Munich's Technical University. He took the listeners on a short historical excursion: the term "allergy" was introduced into medical terminology a hundred years ago in 1906 by the Viennese paediatrician Clemens von Pirquet. There have been many developments in both diagnostics and therapeutics since then. Ring: "Treatment must be seen as an integral part of the holistic concept of allergy management." Patients must receive effective acute treatment, but the long-term aim is to give them complete symptom relief. The treatment of allergic diseases does not involve prescribing magic pills or formulae. It involves applying a selection of the therapy options in an individual programme for each patient.
Need for action and research
"Science is now confronted with the challenge of gaining a better understanding of what causes allergic diseases, and this means asking such questions as why some people suffer while others do not although they are exposed to the same environmental conditions," says Wichmann. "And we have to get politicians to accept their responsibilities," underlined Ring. The incidence of new potent allergens like the pollen brought to Europe with the ambrosia plant calls for speedy and unbureaucratic action at the very top.
The experts were unanimous in their concern about the increased frequency of allergic diseases in recent decades. Researchers are still faced with many unresolved questions that can only be answered with the help of further studies.