Allergies: Europe’s most underestimated chronic diseases
Although they disproportionately affect young people and impact many lives negatively, allergies are still neglected by medical specialists and few countries have adequate programmes in place to deal with them, writes Claudio Ciprian Tănăsescu.
Claudiu Ciprian Tănăsescu is a Romanian MEP in the S&D group and a member of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee in the European Parliament.
What are allergies? An allergy is defined as an exaggerated response of the human immune system to substances that should be harmless. While these may be manageable for some people, for many others they can have a serious impact on their lives.
Around 150 million people in Europe suffer from allergies, making them Europe’s most common chronic disease. Patients who have one allergic disease are at risk of developing another, particularly children. Yet while allergies are often treatable, they are more commonly ignored.
As a Romanian MEP with a medical background, I am particularly concerned about the situation regarding allergies there. The International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC) for the period 1999–2004 found that 14.3% of Romanian 13-14 year-olds showed symptoms of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis; for asthma, the figure was 22.7%. The same study showed that Romania had one of the highest rises in prevalence of these two diseases between the period 1992–1998 and the period 1999–2004. A eurobarometer survey conducted in September 2012 found that 85% of Romanians identified allergies and asthma as a serious problem for the country.
Although allergology is recognised as a full medical specialty in Romania, this has low recognition in comparison to other specialties. There are only around 200 certified allergists for a population of 23 million – that is to say, only one for every 115,000 people. This is reflected in the reimbursement policies, with many effective treatments not being reimbursed, even for children.
The allergy awareness in the general Romanian population is low, and there are frequently huge delays before proper diagnosis and treatment is available. Patient associations also have low visibility. This is a worrying public health scenario.
More disturbing than the rise in the number of allergy sufferers at the European level is the aggravation of allergic diseases. As I recently explained to the European Parliament’s plenary session, allergies disproportionately affect children and teenagers, impacting on their school performance, social life and quality of life in general. Despite this, teachers are often not prepared when facing a child with a severe allergic reaction during school hours.
As part of my long-standing campaigning on this issue, I have therefore co-proposed a European Parliament Written Declaration on recognising the burden of allergic diseases (number 0022/2013). This declaration calls for more effective public health policies in this area: Europe needs national multidisciplinary programmes for effective management of these diseases, educational programmes, investment in research and proper medical training.
In relation to this, I am helping EAACI, the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, to organise a medical test for allergies in the European Parliament, just opposite the entrance to the cafeteria in ASP building, level -1, during the period 7-9 January. This will be conducted by a team led by Dr. Peter Hellings, Professor at the Catholic University of Leuven and a Member of the Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium. It will be open to anyone who works in the Parliament and will involve a quick diagnostic test for allergic sensitisation to the most common allergens in Europe, namely house dust mites, grass pollens, tree pollens, animal danders (cat and dog) and alternaria.
The procedure is very straightforward. It involves placing a tiny drop of an allergen extract on a simple medical implement and then very slightly, and painlessly, puncturing the skin of the forearm. This is repeated for each allergen in a different part of the forearm. The allergens are then allowed 10-15 minutes to react (also painless!), after which a reading is performed by the medical team by assessing the resulting papule and redness to see whether any of the allergens have cause a reaction.
If you have ever wondered why you often suffer from unexplained symptoms such as nasal obstruction, a runny nose, sneezing or itching, then this is your opportunity to find out. At the end, you will be given a results sheet noting your reactions to various allergens, which you can then present to your own doctor.
I therefore urge you to take part in the test, and to call on your MEP to sign the Written Declaration before the deadline of 21January.