Why Melbourne is the world’s allergy capital

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A runny nose, watery eyes and difficulty breathing. Sound familiar? For many, these symptoms are commonplace. While some months are worse than others, allergies, particularly pollen and food, seem to have a stranglehold over our lives. But why is Melbourne worse off than other cities when it comes to allergies?

Chaotic climate

In late 2016 Melburnians sneezed their way through a tumultuous hayfever season, culminating in one of the world’s worst recorded asthma thunderstorms, after which nine people died and countless others experienced severe respiratory problems. During this rare phenomenon people allergically react to burst grass pollen, which once inhaled, can cause difficulty breathing and prove fatal.

Cenk Suphioglu, Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Deakin University, says environmental factors like Melbourne’s wide open spaces and changing weather patterns make our city difficult to live in. ‘Our temperate climate is well suited for the growth of grasses such as ryegrass,’ he says. ‘The unusual non-seasonal weather changes, like more rain throughout the later part of 2016, have seen more favorable conditions for the growth of grasses that results in the production of more pollen.’

‘These combined factors have made Melbourne the thunderstorm asthma capital of the world, with four recorded epidemics in 1987, 1989, 2010 and now 2016.’

Warning signs

Assoc. Prof. Suphioglu and his team at Deakin AIRwatch in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences aim to combat the phenomenon through their research.

By understanding various features of asthma thunderstorms, the AIRwatch team aim to use a ‘predictive model’ to provide a timely public warning. Research conducted at two air sampling stations allows the team to assess the risk across a 20 to 50km radius.

‘Samples are taken daily during September to March – hayfever season in Melbourne – with daily forecasts of both the amount of pollen in the air, and the likelihood of thunderstorm asthma, listed on the AIRwatch website.’

'These combined factors have made Melbourne the thunderstorm asthma capital of the world, with four recorded epidemics in 1987, 1989, 2010 and now 2016.'

Associate Professor Cenk Suphioglu,
School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

Developing our immunity

While symptoms in pollen sufferers can occur at any age, ongoing research is pointing to the importance of early exposure to food allergens to boost immunity – especially in children.

Assoc. Prof. Suphioglu says we must allow ‘the developing immune system to build its repertoire of allergen recognition and memory’. He draws a link between food and pollen allergies in cities such as Melbourne with overly ‘protective’ environments. ‘There are research reports highlighting that children that grow in contact with farm animals are less likely to develop allergies. The diversity of microbiomes in the gut has been implicated in immune tolerance and therefore less allergies.’

One exciting solution – epigenetics – could switch allergy genes on and off by ‘blocking the allergic reaction at the cellular level’, says Assoc. Prof. Suphioglu of his latest research.

What can we do?

Sick of suffering? Plan and prepare, he explains. ‘You currently cannot change the genetic factors that influence allergies, but you can make lifestyle changes that may be able to change environmental factors that influence allergies.’

For example Assoc. Prof. Suphioglu says, ‘if you are only allergic to seasonal grass pollen, one can avoid the outdoors (especially on very windy days as grass pollen are wind pollinated) and ensure medication like antihistamines and bronchodilators are at hand.’

‘If you are allergic to certain foods, such as eggs, then avoiding that food source may be effective – and always carrying an EpiPen.’

Interested in learning more about the science underpinning medical applications? Consider studying biomedical science at Deakin.

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Associate Professor Cenk Suphioglu
Associate Professor Cenk Suphioglu

Associate Professor of Biomedical Science, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University
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