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Pakistan Erects Pollen Camps to Fight Seasonal Allergy Epidemic

Every Spring, for the past several years, Pakistan's medical professionals have been establishing treatment camps for sufferers of pollen allergies. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman visited one of the camps, to find out why so many millions of Pakistanis are having trouble enjoying one of life's free pleasures - the fresh air of Springtime.

Inside the Aabpara Community Center in Pakistan's capital, thousands of patients seek relief at a free pollen-allergy camp. They mostly complain of sneezing, coughing, watery eyes red pimples or just a general miserable feeling. But some have more severe symptoms. Doctors and nurses examine the sufferers, immediately placing oxygen masks on some.

A young physician, Dr. Ziad Shah, writes out a prescription for a boy whose worried mother hovers next to the child.

In a country where terrorist attacks and other violence have become increasingly common, allergy alleviation may not seem like a crisis. But professionals, such as Dr. Shah, say up to half of the population may be affected and that there needs to be greater awareness that the pollen can trigger deadly asthma attacks.

"It is a most severe accidental emergency," said Dr. Shah. "Most of thepeople in Islamabad coming to the camp get breathing difficulties during the nighttime, so they have to come. They are compelled to come."

The main culprit is called "jangli toot" - the paper mulberry tree. One of the fastest growing trees, the male mulberry also has a reputation among allergists as perhaps the world's most prolific pollen generator. Growing up to 15 meters in height, its pollen is reputed to cause the most severe reactions for allergy sufferers among any common plant.

At the free clinics, patients can choose whether they want to be treated with anti-histamines and pain relievers or natural remedies. Doctors say about half of the patients choose the fast-acting and powerful pharmaceuticals. But some prefer homeopathic mixtures. Others ask for hikmat, also known as unani, therapy, which relies on honey and herbs. Regardless of the type of treatment, patients also get counseling on how to reduce their exposure to the allergens.

On the women's side of the clinic, Hussan Iqbal is wearing a mask while awaiting her turn. She says she is seeking relief for the 18th straight year.

She says it has been getting worse and worse every spring. Her symptoms get so severe she wakes up with chest pains and needs to immediately receive an injection to alleviate her suffering.

The paper tree pollen count Monday and Tuesday in Islamabad was at the "very high" level, according to the Pakistan Meteorological Department. It says at that alert stage, the highest on the chart, "almost all individuals with any sensitivity" to that particular pollen will experience symptoms.

The problem is particularly acute in the capital, where about two-thirds of all the greenery in and around the capital is composed of paper mulberry trees.

Native to East Asia, the mulberry was introduced here after the modern capital was built in the 1960's, to enhance the scenery. But the tree soon was growing out of control, crowding native flora and winning the battle against other plants for groundwater.

Another patient at the pollen camp, Meher Rehman, says he has been fighting the pollen scourge for two decades and is fed up with having to seek treatment every spring.

Rehman says every single paper mulberry tree in and around Islamabad should be uprooted.

That is a task in the hands of the Capital Development Authority. But the coordinator of the Aabpara pollen camp, pharmacist Sardar Shabbir-Ahmed, says it is not to going to be accomplished within the next several years.

"You can't get rid of all these trees all together because that will create some environmental problems.

So phase-wise cutting is being carried out," said Shabbir-Ahmed. "That is, I think, the basic step which will eliminate the root cause of this problem."

Full relief from the mulberry pollen will not come until June. That is when the rainy season starts. But, for many, the respite will be short. The rains will be the signal for the Bhang hemp plant to pollinate, sending a new wave of sneezing Pakistanis to clinics seeking relief.