Dr Ahmed Manjra, an allergologist at Westville Hospital, examines the Burkard spore trap that was recently installed to monitor aero-allergens in Durban. Fungal spore loads seen so far in Durban have been the highest in the seven cities currently being monitored in South Africa.
The sudden flare-up of nasal allergies in Durban is likely due to the high levels of mould and fungal spores, which are being intensified by grass pollen this spring season.
So believes Prof Jonny Peter, head of the UCT Lung Institute’s allergy unit.
The institute is responsible for monitoring pollen throughout South Africa and for the first time in more than 20 years, thanks to funding provided by Clicks, Twinsaver, Thermo Fischer and A Vogel Echinaforce, they are able to warn Durban residents of the type of airborne allergens that are in circulation and how they can better manage their symptoms.
“Durban is situated in a subtropical climate zone with high relative humidity and warm average temperatures, which is conducive to mould growth. In fact, of the seven South African cities currently being monitored for airborne allergens, Durban mould levels are the highest. High levels of Alternaria, Cladosporium and Epicoccum fungal spores have also been found in the atmosphere of the city, exacerbating symptoms for the estimated 3, 3 million hay fever sufferers living in the area,” Prof Peter explained.
Common symptoms include a runny, itchy or congested nose, post-nasal drip, sore throat, itchy and/or watery eyes, which can last for months.
He pointed out that asthma is already a big problem in Durban- partly due to high levels of pollution and humidity, but when the allergenic load is augmented by pollen, mould or fungal spores that are breathed in, it substantially increases the risk for sufferers.
“An asthmatic’s lungs are more sensitive to extreme temperatures. Pollution irritates the airways, while humid, moist air is heavy and difficult to inhale. Extreme heat, just like cold air, can aggravate asthma symptoms. When you add a pollen or mould allergy to the mix, it further restricts breathing, which could trigger asthma attacks,” he added.
Durban, which has a similar climate to Australia’s south-east coast could also become vulnerable to a phenomenon, called ‘thunderstorm asthma’.
It’s a weather phenomenon that occurs on a hot day/ night when there is a lot of moisture present before a cold front and strong winds sweep up vast amounts of pollen into the sky, which is then sent pouring down, causing major respiratory distress.
Three years ago, Melbourne was hit by such a storm, which led to several asthma deaths and thousands of ER admissions in one 24-hour period during the height of the pollen season.
It’s incidences such as this and skyrocketing pollen counts that have been recorded in the northern hemisphere that has fuelled a renewed interest in monitoring airborne allergies worldwide.
Based on current models, experts predict that pollen levels will quadruple in the next 20 to 30 years, making life unbearable for those with pollen sensitivities. People who don’t normally suffer from hay fever may likely start to and asthma attacks may also increase.
The threat of other allergic plants, such as ragweed (typically found in Europe) migrating southward, as a result of climate change, could also increase pollen production in the region.
“It’s our intention to keep the allergen spore trap that was erected in Westville just a few weeks ago running over the long-term, but we need the public’s help. If we have more data available to us, we will be able to predict the impact that certain weather conditions will have on the public’s health and we’ll know which allergens are in circulation when,” he continued.
Monitoring airborne allergens on a more sustainable basis will help them to better understand the impact of global warming on pollen and mould proliferation in SA.
“Without this data, it becomes difficult to develop effective treatments for local conditions,” concluded Prof Peter.
The public can donate towards pollen monitoring by visiting www.pollencount.co.za Up-to-date pollen counts for the Durban region can also be accessed here.