ABU DHABI // Allergies are on the increase in the UAE and a lack of knowledge about them could lead to a rise in the number of asthma sufferers.
Dr Bassam Mahboub, president of the Emirates Allergy and Respiratory Society, said there was a high prevalence of allergies in the Middle East, but the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were experiencing higher rates than other countries in the region.
He was one of a group of experts from across the region who met in Dubai recently to discuss the rising prevalence of allergies and start compiling a report they hope to publish early next year.
Dr Mahboub said one of the main types in the UAE was allergic rhinitis, which affected 10 per cent of adults and more than 30 per cent of children and adolescents. Allergic rhinitis is similar to hay fever but occurs all year.
Asthma affects about 10 per cent of adults and about 15 per cent of children and adolescents in the UAE, but experts fear misdiagnosis of allergies with cold or flu symptoms, by doctors or sufferers, could increase those numbers.
“Studies show if a person is not treated properly for nasal allergies in the beginning they have a higher chance of developing asthma at a later stage,” said Dr Saicharan Bodi, a specialist in respiratory medicine at Abu Dhabi’s Burjeel Hospital.
A sufferer mistaking the symptoms for a cold or influenza can also lead to mistreatment of allergies.
“Unfortunately, many people will go to the pharmacy and get the over-the-counter medication – the cold and flu combination of medication,” said Dr Mahboub, an Emirati.
“My only worry is this medication is only good for three to four days maximum, and it shouldn’t be used more than this because then you run into the side effects.
“Also, you are not addressing the main issue.”
Cases of allergic conjunctivitis, an eye disease, also appear to be rising, Dr Mahboub said.
He said cases of the wrong diagnosis being given for allergies occurred all around the world.
“I think we need to increase awareness among the medical society as well, to start recognising these things, especially among general practitioners and the family physicians,” Dr Mahboub said.
The report from the health professionals who met in Dubai at the end of last month will detail the importance of diagnosing allergies early, starting patients on the correct treatment and teaching the public and doctors not to opt for short-term cold and flu medication.
One mother, from Abu Dhabi, took her son to see a specialist because of wheezing and recommends other parents do the same.
“He had an allergy from the age of three and a half to four years old,” said the mother, who didn’t want to be identified.
The boy, now 6, was told to take medication on a regular basis for two years, before stopping last year to only use it when required.
“Now I can say that he is 90 per cent OK in terms of wheezing,” his mother said. “He doesn’t get frequent wheezing and I don’t rush to the hospital.
“Earlier, I went to hospital once a month.”
The high rate of allergies in the region is due to several factors, including a trend of increased allergies as people become healthier and more hygienic.
Urbanisation, which produces more pollution, also raises the levels of allergies and a third factor is an increase in sandstorms.
Factors such as sand, the climate and high use of air conditioning also play their part.
“If AC units are not well maintained there’s a higher risk for dust to accumulate there and also some of the fungal allergens can also be contributing to these allergies,” said Dr Bodi.
“Eighty per cent of the population are expatriates. Even if they don’t have any previous family history or allergies in their history, they have a chance to develop a new case of the allergy, especially in the case of the nasal allergies, because of constant exposure to all these factors.
“From the observations that we have seen, we get a lot of allergic reaction after windy days when there is a lot of dust,” Dr Mahboub said.
“Usually this aggravates allergies that people have, whether it’s an eye allergy or a nose allergy, or even chest allergy or asthma.”
People suffering from what could be an allergy should see their family doctor or GP and will usually be given a prescription for anti-inflammatory medication.
Dr Bodi said allergies were increasing globally, and the Middle East was no exception.
“We don’t have clear data to compare all areas of the world, so we can’t compare the UAE to other countries,” he said.