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Sunday, Feb. 20, 2005
Ah-choo! Picked up an allergy to the hay-fever industry
Last week the pharmaceutical company Riken announced that it was developing a new desensitivity treatment for serious allergy sufferers. The treatment program would entail fifty or so injections over a three-year period, which is quite a reduction in time. I should know. I received biweekly or monthly allergy shots from the time I was about eleven until my sophomore year in college.
Unfortunately, the treatment won't be ready for another five years at least, which means Japan's allergy sufferers will have to make do with what's available. But there's a lot that's available.
According to an article in the Feb. 14 issue of Aera, the market for hay fever products in Japan is about 100 billion yen, and in preparation for this spring, which experts say will be the worst hay fever season in history owing to last summer's hot weather, supermarkets and department stores have set up special sections that sell all sorts of products to protect you from allergens.
Aera estimates that there are about 300 such retail products now on the market. Most are not medicinal in nature, but rather prophylactic: masks, goggles, clothing made from special fabric that pollen cannot adhere to. The household products industry is eyeing a windfall with specialized mops, dusters, and cleaning solutions, since pollen trapped in the home is just as misery-inducing as pollen encountered outdoors. Home appliance makers advertise air conditioners with allergen filters. Then there's all those nutritional supplements that supposedly help the body lessen the effects of allergic reactions.
The economic beauty of these products is that allergies are by definition incurable. Unless you are willing to endure the kind of desensitivity treatment that I underwent, you must resign yourself to living with your allergies, and the only solution is to make your environment habitable. For relief from suffering you can only deal with symptoms: antihistamines for the runny nose, eye washes, ointments for itchy skin.
Even Kirin Beer has a stake in allergies owing to its KW line, which uses a special strain of lactic bacterium to counter allergens. Recently, the brewer carried out a survey to gauge the allergy market. Not surprisingly, dissatisfaction is high: 42 percent of respondents said they spend too much on allergy relief products; 39 percent complained that antihistamines and other hay fever medications made them drowsy.
The most significant beef was that 39 percent said they didn't believe over-the-counter allergy remedies had any real effect, which may sound ominous to pharmaceutical companies but one has to consider the culture of shinhatsubai (brand new), which, like Hollywood's strategy of making a killing the first weekend of a film's release before word-of-mouth exposes it as a dud, is based on exploiting consumers' desperation at least one time. People will buy a brand new product thinking maybe it will help and when it doesn't they don't buy it again. But with 20 million allergy sufferers and growing -- children are more susceptible to allergies so the market always has the potential to expand -- a manufacturer can make a lot of money in the short run.
Of course, the long run is better, which is where the media comes in. People's understanding that springtime from now on will bring more than cherry blossoms is reinforced every day by weather reports that incorporate detailed bulletins on pollen levels and news show interviews with doctors who tell particularly sensitive people to stay indoors as much as they can. Pessimists have their choice of permanent scenarios. One says that our obsession with cleanliness has made our bodies less resilient to foreign substances, while another says that the man-made pollutants in our environment aggravate the effects of natural allergens. In other words, if you stay home your body loses its natural defenses, but if you go outside you're vulnerable to attack. The only real solution is to remove the source of the pollen, namely all those cedars planted after WWII to reforest mountains that had been denuded for the war effort. Experts estimate that replacing the culprit trees (cedars with male flowers) is difficult and could take a hundred years. Meanwhile bureaucrats are trying to come up with quicker solutions and politicians are forming working groups like the Liberal Democratic Party's Hakushon (Ah-choo!) Conference to pass related legislation.
It's probably too late. The cedar pollen problem has been known for at least 20 years, but while the problem itself has always been real the resulting commercial windfall was not possible until public perception of the problem was widespread. The degree of suffering depends not only on a person's sensitivity to pollen, but also on that person's sensitivity to alarming news.
Recently, a man wrote a letter to the Asahi Shimbun saying that he's suffered from hay fever his whole life, but 40 years ago his symptoms were once mistaken for tuberculosis, and doctors who did recognize them as allergies didn't treat them; they simply told him to "build up your stamina."
We've come a long way since then in our understanding of allergies, and the outcome is that many more people believe they suffer from them. There's no reason to think they don't, but it's certainly in the interest of more people now that they do.
I came to such a realization in college. After more than 10 years of shots, I asked my allergist when I would be able to stop, and he said, "After you're desensitized," but didn't put a timeframe on it. I pointed out that I had survived the previous five springs without the stuffed up nose and ear infections that made me miserable as a child, and he countered that feeling better didn't necessarily mean anything. When I heard that, I decided to quit the treatments. I've been fine ever since.