By Diana Lee
Possibly the worst hay fever season to hit Japan this spring has been widely reported in the media warning allergy sufferers to take precaution. As spring arrives, hay fever has become a vital topic of interest to everyone. The annual hay fever season brings recurring health problems to numerous allergy sufferers, high profits for drug companies, allergy-related manufacturers and retailers, as well as headaches for the government to deal with the growing spread of hay fever.
Historically, hay fever was never considered a health problem until after World War II. Because the Japanese domestic forests were severely depleted for the purposes of fuel-wood and construction lumber during the war, the government simultaneously began importing huge amount of timber from South East Asia and implementing an aggressive reforestation program throughout Japan, planting cedar trees from the 1950s through the 1970s to cover 4.5 million hectares. The original plan was to manage the reforested areas by reducing the number of trees while leaving the rest for lumber after 40 to 50 years.
In 1963, the government was alerted to the hay fever problem when it conducted the first formal diagnosis of the allergy in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, known for its cedar-lined roads. Since the importation of foreign lumber, which includes timber from North America, Russian and New Zealand, the domestic demand and the price of domestic lumber have drastically declined over the years. Realizing no financial gain from logging domestic trees, the officials abandoned the original plan. As a result, years of government's neglect to thin out the reforested areas or cut down the cedars for lumber, nearly 90% of male cedar trees having reached maturity after 20 to 30 years now produce pollen. Hay fever is spreading all over the nation as it takes its toll - estimated 20 million allergy sufferers and increasing among the Japanese.
According to the Japan Allergy Foundation research, the number of hay fever sufferers doubled from the 1970s to 1980s. High amounts of pollen were recorded every two years in the 1990s and have been an annual occurrence since 2000. One possible cause for the surge of pollen in the air is global warming which has hastened the growth of cedars being exposed to more sunny days. In fact, some cedars have begun producing pollen after just 10 years, earlier than in the past. Furthermore, the number of city dwellers suffering from hay fever has risen more than that for folks living in rural areas. Experts explained that the metropolitan environment - air pollution, mental stress and unhealthy diet (rich in fat and protein) - might attribute to allergic reactions. Worse still, hay fever has been linked to children's rising health problems with asthma and atopic dermatitis. Last year, a record high of elementary and junior high schools pupils have been reported suffering from asthma.
On the economic front, spring brings great opportunities for businesses to make a killing - selling medicines, prophylactic and household products for hay fever. Drug companies have been promoting a wide range of hay fever products, including disposable masks, eye drops and oral medicine. According to the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry, masks can reduce the amount of pollen contact by one-third to one-sixth, and goggles by half to one-third. Consumers, who don't like the antihistamine drug effects (cited as sleepiness and dizziness), turn to herbal products that are believed to alleviate allergic reactions. Medicinal tea and calcium tablets or candies can help build body stamina against allergic reactions, if taken before the hay fever season sets in. Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute estimates profits from the hay fever-related products in the first quarter of 2005 to be around 64 billion yen, double that of last year.
Joining the drug companies, other businesses have started their own lines of household products for combating the pollen problem. The inventions of anti-pollen household products could be a new trend for business in the future. A textile firm, Teijin Nestex Ltd claims its window screen can block more than 80% of incoming pollen. The health and beauty products maker, Lion Corp. has introduced a spray for clothes to prevent pollen from clinging to fabric. Along the same line, Toray Industries Inc. and Aeon Co. have created a special fabric to which pollen cannot adhere. An electronics manufacturer, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. has developed an air purifier that generates ions to interact with pollen in the air, resulting in changing pollen to a non-allergen.
Besides the available consumer products, serious hay fever sufferers can resort to nose treatments. The surgery involves shooting a laser beam to numb the mucous membrane in the nose, so it will be less sensitive to pollen. According to Tokyo Medical University Hospital, about 80% of the patients who had surgeries on their noses no longer suffer allergic reactions. In five years, a new sensitivity treatment that entails injections over a three-year period will be available. Recently, the Farm Ministry announced the intention of producing genetically modified rice that can help the body's immune system in building resistance to allergic reactions. These drastic measures could be solutions to the hay fever problem; nevertheless, the best course is to cut down all the cedars.
As for the government's reaction, it has stepped up in funding hay fever projects. The budget was increased from 268 million yen in fiscal 1995 to 7.3 billion yen in fiscal 2002. Under one project, the forestry agency has provided prefectural subsidies for thinning out municipally owned cedar areas near cities. The agency has also begun planting newly developed strains of cedars that produce less pollen. The Forest Tree Breeding Center, an independent administrative institution collaborating with prefectural governments, has also been working on 57 kinds of cedar that emit less pollen. Meanwhile, the metropolitan government is giving away seeds of newly developed strains of cedars to vendors that sell saplings.
Unfortunately, the hay fever season is exacting a heavy toll on hay fever sufferers - physically and financially - for spring has become a dreaded season for years to come.
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