More South Africans are suffering from allergies than ever before, including a dangerous allergy to peanuts, two new studies show.
The studies, coordinated by doctors at the University of Cape Town, link an alarming growth in allergies to urbanisation and modern lifestyle, mirroring a similar trend worldwide.
A survey of over 1 000 schoolchildren found 6% now suffered from asthma, compared to 3% in a similar study 20 years ago.
The South African studies back international figures that suggest allergies have doubled worldwide in the last 10 to 15 years.
An allergic reaction occurs when the body's immune system over-reacts and responds inappropriately to a usually harmless foreign element.
A second UCT study suggests a significant increase in peanut allergies in infants of mothers who ate a lot of peanuts during pregnancy.
Peanut, egg and milk allergies are now the commonest allergies in the first year of life, affecting about 5% of the urbanised population, the latest figures show. The increase has been striking - it has something to do with westernisation, said the director and research head of the UCT Allergology Unit at the UCT Lung Institute, Professor Paul Potter.
The increase affected all race groups and social classes, he said.
A further study, about to be published, found an even greater increase in the prevalence of asthma and allergic sensitivity in rural children living in the Eastern Cape. Bee-sting and drug allergies were also on the increase.
New previously unheard of allergies were also a problem, including those triggered by tropical foods such as kiwi fruit, melons and bananas.
Said Potter: Increasing allergy prevalence may be related to diet and hygiene factors, but surprisingly it doesn't seem to be directly related to pollution. Most highly polluted areas were found to have slightly lower allergy prevalence.
As society becomes more sophisticated you find allergies increasing. They are a disease of modern living.
Heightened awareness of the worldwide allergy epidemic has prompted some airlines to ban nut snacks and set aside peanut-free zones on board upon request from allergic passengers.
Source: Sunday Times, 24 June 2001