For sufferers of kafunshou (pollen allergy) or hay fever, this is shaping up into a really bad year. Because of last summer’s sweltering heat, the amount of cedar pollen in the air is forecast to rise two or three times above average, possibly exceeding the worst-ever level of 1995. Reports say that, in some regions, the pollen count will be several dozen to 100 times greater than last year, when the level was relatively low.

The most effective means of self-defense for individuals is to begin treatment before the pollen count peaks, as this helps to alleviate symptoms. At the same time, though, since hay fever has now become a sort of national ailment, the government should promote forceful countermeasures.

A government survey conducted in 1998 showed that the number of hay-fever sufferers nationwide accounted for 20 percent of the population. The number of people suffering from hay fever caused by cedar pollen alone was 20 million, or 16 percent of the population. These figures have risen further since then.

At that time, annual medical expenses related to hay fever amounted to 200 billion yen, or an estimated 226 billion yen if masks and over-the-counter medicine were included. Labor loss resulting from worry about hay fever and the onset of symptoms was estimated to be at least 60 billion yen a year.

Last month, the government’s Council for Science and Technology Policy launched a study group on hay-fever countermeasures consisting of bureau directors from related ministries and agencies and experts. Its aim is to review the research on hay-fever countermeasures, which so far have been implemented separately by different ministries and agencies, and decide on focused studies.

In addition, for the first time, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare this year has instructed prefectures to take needed countermeasures, such as establishing consultation services for residents. The current situation demands that the government adopt a wide range of forceful countermeasures, including the development of medicine for prevention and treatment, and food products that can contribute to controlling symptoms.

Hay-fever sufferers first attracted attention in Japan during the 1960s, and the number has increased rapidly since the 1970s. It was in the 1950s, for forest conservation and flood control purposes, that cedar trees were planted throughout the country on mountains that had been denuded during Japan’s development drive after World War II. These cedar trees grew and eventually came to produce a certain amount of pollen every year. The increase in allergenic cedar pollen is the basic cause of cedar-induced hay fever. Atmospheric pollution is also believed to be responsible.

Besides hay fever, the number of people with allergic symptoms like atopy has also increased. According to a 2003 survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 36 percent of the population — that is, one out of every three persons — complain of some symptom or other. And the number of sufferers of these ailments, including hay fever, is greater in urban areas than in rural areas.

It is easy for allergenic ticks and mold to thrive in airtight condominiums, and it is easy for pollen to swirl around in well-paved business districts. The rise in summer temperatures as a result of global warming increases the pollen. In a sense, kafunshou is a modern illness that reflects social conditions in Japan. Even if the cedar trees are replaced by pollen-free trees, a large pollen count is expected to continue for decades.

Doctors recommend that current sufferers get a head start by taking medicine before the pollen count rises. The basic remedy is to combine nasal spray and oral medicine in accordance with the symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose or blocked nose, and their severity. Even people without symptoms should make sure that pollen does not get inside the house. At the same time, sufferers of allergic illnesses like hay fever and atopy should beware medical treatment that does not have a scientific basis. For example, the Japan Society of Immunology and Allergology in Otolatyngology has warned of the dangers of treatments that promise to “restrain the symptoms of hay fever with just one injection.” Such methods are still spreading by word of mouth.

Furthermore, hay fever has become a huge market, and various businesses have begun peddling pollen-repellent goods, pollen-repellent household electric appliances, and health foods that are said to suppress the symptoms. In adopting hay-fever countermeasures, it is important for the government to sort out the present flood of information and to supply accurate information in an easy-to-understand manner.

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