Why are allergies on the rise in the UAE?
Allergies are a global problem, as around the world children are far more likely than ever, compared to adults, to develop allergies to certain foods and specific environmental elements. This is particularly true in the UAE, where since the 1990s, allergies among children have increased by 50 percent.
Why, you may ask? Well, the answer lies in our understanding of what an allergy is, the symptoms experienced, causes, and the environment we live in.
In this article by Pacific Prime Dubai, we will assess the causes leading to the escalating situation in the UAE. We will also provide insights into how health insurance can help provide individuals and families coverage if they succumb to a serious allergic reaction.
Allergies in the UAE: An overview
Allergic diseases are known to be one of the most common chronic health conditions in the world and also in the UAE. There are several types of allergic conditions, chief among them being: eczema (a skin condition), asthma, food allergies, and hay fever (allergic rhinitis).
Allergies arise from an immune response to a substance (allergen) that the body doesn’t recognize. Immune responses can be mild, from coughing and sneezing to a life-threatening reaction known universally as anaphylaxis. Examples of allergens are ‘pollen’ grains from flowering plants including trees and grass.
Allergens found in food are common and broad. The foods that commonly cause allergic reactions in infants and children are eggs, milk, wheat, peanuts, soy, and tree nuts such as walnuts. Similarly, in adults, the common foods are tree nuts, peanuts, fish such as salmon, and crustaceans such as crabs, lobsters, and prawns.
For example, antigen proteins in the egg may be perceived as a foreign entity because the body’s immune system does not recognize the protein structure (antigen) in eggs as a safe type of food. Therefore the body will react to it like it would a virus leading to serious implications for the affected person.
The body’s immune system
The immune system is the body’s ultimate defense system against infectious organisms and other foreign invaders.
When we are born, our immune systems, unlike a medical device which can be loaded with data has no information on the outside world. Instead, the neonatal immune systems begin to adapt as it encounters foreign bodies such as microbes, fungi, viruses, and so forth. The process normally happens in the lungs, guts, skin, and mucosa, as these make up the body’s points of contact with the outside world.
Each time the body encounters foreign bodies and neutralizes them, it produces memory cells that help recognize future, similar infections. This way the immune system continually builds a memory bank of all infections it has come across.
Allergies are on the rise in the UAE (especially food allergies)
In the UAE, we have seen an increase in food allergies, such as a recent case where a 14-year-old teenager in Dubai who suffered from an allergic reaction to prawns, a type of crustacean. Fortunately, she was treated with an ‘epi’ pen which reversed the effects of the reaction. The epi pen is an injection containing a chemical called epinephrine that constricts blood vessels and opens the airways.
Allergies in the UAE are fairly prevalent, with up to one-fifth of the UAE’S population suffering from some form of allergy.
Quoting from a medical professional:
Dr. Ahmed El-Rafel, Allergist and Medical Director, Novomed Allergy and Asthma Clinic
“The first step in treating allergies is to know where your allergies are coming from. With skin testing, we can identify the culprit allergen. Once the cause is identified, we can treat your allergy with immunotherapy or allergy vaccines, also known as allergy shots”.
It is reassuring to know that there are provisions in place to help save lives and alleviate symptoms. For conditions such as asthma, the advent of inhalers was groundbreaking to alleviate symptoms and give users full control of their treatment. Nasal allergies occurring due to substances like pollen and dust in the air can be treated with antihistamine pills or nasal sprays. Epi-pens have also been central for those experiencing allergic reactions to food, insect stings or bites, or towards medication. Thus there are many options available in the UAE.
Urbanization in the UAE
Once thought to be common in western societies only, this chronic health trend is becoming more noticeable in the UAE. Possibly due to the fact that the country has grown socially and economically in the past few decades, urbanization of the Emirate states has introduced additional parameters like food cuisine from around the world and sources of agricultural crops to nourish the population. The introduction of new foods means previously unknown allergies are being made aware when a reaction happens.
Owing to urban sprawl and dramatic changes to the geographical landscapes, more and more people previously living in rural settings are migrating to urban areas, which means they increase their chances of coming across food or flora that they had not tried or seen before,
On another note, the appearance of invasive flora species is also having a profound effect on human health.
“They compete with native species over resources, which lead to the extinction or population reduction of the native species. They can cause great economic and environmental harm as alien pests and pathogens can damage … agriculture and fisheries. They can also cause harm to human health as they carry and spread diseases.”
Why are allergies more prevalent among children than adults?
According to Dr Carlos Baptista, Paediatric Allergist at Novomed, the immune system starts to work fully from birth. The way the system also interacts with the outside world is what seems to give rise to these common allergic diseases. Around the world, one in eight children have asthma, one in 13 suffer from eczema, one in eight have allergic rhinitis, and around one in 20 have a food allergy.
Additionally, research indicates that excessive use of certain medications such as antibiotics correlates to a rise in allergies.
It was suggested that the use of these drugs changes the balance of the bacterial flora of a healthy gut environment by targeting them as well. Thus without the correct balance of good bacteria, allergic diseases such as asthma and food allergies begin to rise and increase the body’s chances to a reaction
Antibiotics are considered a key weapon in treating infections and diseases. However, when used carelessly or not according to medical advice they can lead to long term problems such as antibiotic resistance. The Ministry of Health and Prevention in the UAE are tackling this issue head-on in order to reduce the misuse of antibiotics.
Another sensation that doctors in the UAE have pointed to is that modern cleanliness means children at a young age are no longer exposed to germs on a day-to-day basis for their immune systems to develop. By taking away stimulus that will harm children from a young age, it can lead to health problems later on in their lives. Although it is important to establish a safe environment to protect children, it is also beneficial for young children to be exposed to the environment too.
How to protect yourself and your children with insurance
Allergic reactions can make a big impact on your life and be a financial or family burden if you don’t have the necessary help and support. With the cost of medical help increasing yearly, something which we discuss in detail in our recently released ‘State of Health Insurance’ Dubai report, it is imperative to choose an insurer who can provide you with the right cover.
Fortunately, Pacific Prime Dubai is partnered with reputable global insurers such as:
We also support expatriates by offering expat medical insurance. For individuals with conditions already affecting their lives, we also welcome those wishing to inquire about pre-existing condition insurance. If you are a traveler wondering about getting travel insurance, then speaking to our team will help you make the best decision to suit your needs.
Parents prepared to try for a baby may want to check out maternity insurance and newborn insurance to ensure that both the mother and child are covered in the event they need inpatient or outpatient medical support.
His expert view and wealth of knowledge on insurance can also be found in his blogs for China, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
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