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Allergies on the rise

By Flavia Nassaka

Over-use of antibiotics cited as one of the major causes of allergic conditions

At Mwanamugimu Nutrition Unit at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, 70% of all cases that are registered daily are to do food allergies, according to Dr. Samson Muddu, a nutritionist at the facility. He says though the problem of food allergies is most prevalent among children aged four months – two years, they record a number of adults with similar complaints.

At the Kampala Skin Clinic, one can be tempted to think that their services are free because of the crowd of patients who frequent the facility. Yet, on entering the clinic, a notice indicating that consultation fee is Shs 50,000; is conspicuously pinned on the wall.  A special appointment is charged Shs 75,000 – a substantial amount for an ordinary or average Ugandan. Indeed, an allergy is a costly condition to deal with.

Dr. Fred Kambugu, a dermatologist at Mulago Skin Clinic, says skin allergies have become quite common. He notes that one in every ten Ugandans has had an allergy in his lifetime.

Allergy problems include the life-threatening anaphylaxis, reactions to food, skin allergies, sinuses, asthma, rhinitis (running nose), conjunctivitis, eczema, drug and insect allergies.

The World Health Organisation estimates that globally, 300 million people suffer from asthma and about 200 to 250 million people suffer from food allergies.  One tenth of the population suffers from drug allergies and 400 million from rhinitis. These numbers are expected to increase by 2025. So why are people becoming more allergic?

Dr. Rebecca Nantanda defines an allergy as a heightened sensitivity to a foreign substance (called an allergen) that causes the body’s immune system to overreact when defending itself.

“Normally, the immune system would only react if a harmful substance, such as bacteria, attacks the body. For people with allergies, their immune systems are working too hard and react even when relatively harmless substances are present, says Dr. Nantanda, adding that allergens can stimulate an immune response when you breathe in or touch the allergen, or by ingestion of food or beverage, or from injections.

She says Asthma is currently at its peak as patients are having frequent attacks because of the sudden environmental changes and other triggers such as an increase in buildings and too many cars in the city that make bronchial tubes swollen and narrower thus making it difficult to breathe.

Dr. Muddu points out that children are increasingly becoming allergic to food because they are no longer breast fed as recommended. Because mothers stay long hours away from home, the babies are introduced to feeds early on leading to reactions as they are deprived of numerous species of useful bacteria found in milk.

The doctor says that foods like milk, eggs, groundnuts, meats and sea food account for 90% of all reactions.

Dr. Kambugu attributes the rise to skin infections to improper hygiene but he still points that over use of some and misuse antibiotics like augementin may cause reactions because in a bid to cure a disease even the useful bacteria that the body needs are eliminated.

He says use of antibiotics in infants is responsible for 40% of all allergic infections.

Countering allergies

Doctors say the best way to counter all kinds of allergies is to avoid the cause (allergen). One should always be aware of the kind of allergens that affect them.

The most common method doctors use to identify specific allergies is a skin test. By scratching the skin, or making an injection just underneath it, the doctor can observe your body’s reaction to various allergens.

“A skin test cannot classify all allergies but it covers major categories such as common respiratory allergies, food, drug and insect stings. Being aware of your allergy could prevent a future allergic reaction that could be life threatening,” explains Dr. Kambugu.

Dr. Nantanda says children whose parents have an allergy have a greater chance of having allergies themselves but one can live a normal life even if they don’t use inhalers, injections and tablets.

“Medication can come in during extreme asthmatic attacks but avoiding dust accumulation, chilled drinks and using a duvet rather than a blanket can help. Duvets do not store too much dust,” she advises. Dr. Muddu warns people with allergies to always seek their doctors’ advice to rule out misconceptions as intestinal parasites are sometimes mistaken for allergies because they at times manifest the same symptoms.  For example, worms such as nematodes once digested can lead to a reaction.

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