Centre for allergies is first in Asia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 May, 2012, 12:00am


The Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital is to be home to Asia's first centre for allergies, the South China Morning Post has learned.

The Allergies Centre, which will be launched tomorrow at the private hospital in Happy Valley, will employ a team of experts to carry out the latest diagnostic tests and provide cutting-edge treatment for allergic reactions, which affect up to 40 per cent of the world's population, according to the World Health Organisation.

The number of allergy sufferers worldwide has 'surged' in the past decade and demand for treatment in the city has 'never been higher', according to British doctor Lee Tak-hong, who will run the centre.

In Hong Kong, 8 per cent of the population suffers from allergies, says Lee , who has been recruited from London's King's College. But awareness is well behind that found in Western countries, he adds, claiming patients tend to seek treatment for the symptoms rather than the causes of their allergies.

While allergies are often associated with more minor symptoms such as itchiness, swelling and upset stomachs, more serious reactions can be life-threatening, and the number of serious cases is on the increase.

'The number of patients who suffer from allergies has been surging... and the symptoms continue to become more serious,' Lee said. 'Over the past 10 years, I have witnessed more severe cases emerging that required hospital treatment. A lot of patients in dangerous cases could not breathe due to swelling of the mouth and windpipe.'

Allergic reactions occur when the immune system reacts to a substance in the environment in an unusual way. Asthma, a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways which can be triggered by allergens, affects some 300 million people worldwide, according to the WHO, a figure expected to grow to 400 million by 2025.

Patients often seek treatment from an eye doctor for sore, watery eyes or a dermatologist for eczema or itchiness, but may not realise that the root of their problem is a reaction in the body's immune system.

'The reason for such a reaction is still unknown. It is commonly believed it is because people's immune systems have become used to a clean environment in the urban area. There is evidence showing that those who were born on a farm and were exposed to more bacteria since their youth suffer fewer cases of asthma.

'Some new research suggests a lack of natural sunlight could also be one of the reasons,' Lee told the Post.

Techniques such as skin prick tests, skin tests or blood tests, can be used to diagnose the substances causing the reaction - usually house dust mites, mould, plant pollen, proteins from animals, or food like milk, eggs, fish and nuts, he says.

New treatments are also becoming available, such as immunotherapy, in which patients are exposed to gradually increasing amounts of an allergen to boost their immunity to it. But the medication for a three-year course costs HK$50,000, and must be imported.

'The demand for treatment has never been higher in the city. Many patients feel allergies have affected their lives. But they just do not know the way to seek help and the city offers little choices', said Lee. His comments echo those of the Hong Kong Allergy Association, which has accused the government of failing to support allergy sufferers or come up with a policy to address the problem.