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Could an Old Human Nemesis Be the Cure-All?

February 5, 1999

Allergies are on the increase in Japan. Approximately one in four Japanese now suffer from allergic disorders like skin inflammation and hay fever. Since there is no conclusive explanation for this spread, no effective remedy has been found. One unique approach to fighting allergies that enlists the help of parasites, however, has been garnering much attention of late.

Too Clean for Our Own Good?
According to Koichiro Fujita, a specialist in parasitology at Tokyo Medical and Dental University, the Japanese' fixation with cleanliness is prompting the rise in allergic diseases. Japanese society has traditionally been particular about hygiene. But the E. coli O157 outbreak in the summer of 1996, in which thousands became sick and several died, brought this fixation to the level of obsession. Since then there has been a surge of new products being marketed as germ resistant. Not just limited to common high-bacteria objects like sinks and toilets, these antiseptic devises extend even to such frequently touched appliances as vacuum cleaners and refrigerators.

Fujita worries that these products are affecting the future of Japanese health: "Japan is wasting money, producing germ-free goods that are weakening the immune system of the Japanese population."

The Connection Between Germs and Allergies
Parasites apparently help fend off allergies. Allergic reactions are brought on when, for instance, the inner lining of such areas as the nose and bronchial tubes are irritated by foreign substances. The body, in turn, releases potent chemicals to combat the antigens, which result in allergy symptoms like itching and sneezing. When these infiltrated areas are occupied by parasites, however, glycoproteins secreted by the microorganisms trigger the production of antibodies to quell the allergic reactions.

According to one of Fujita's recent studies, eating organic vegetables has been shown to aid the healing of hypersensitive skin and the proliferation of antiallergy parasites within the body. In another study, monkeys originally exhibiting no allergic reaction to pollen who were then treated with pesticide contracted hay fever.

Fujita is not the only one praising the merits of parasitic antiallergens. In 1994 the medical department at Germany's University of Hamburg conducted a study of various allergy occurrences in former East and West Germany and found that incidents were three times higher in western Germany. Allergies have been commonly thought to be caused by such human-induced factors as air pollution and food additives. Though these elements were comparatively higher in eastern Germany, researchers concluded that the lower instances of allergy in eastern Germany were due to the higher levels of parasites, viruses, and bacteria found in children.

Upgrading Allergy Controls
Beginning in April 1998 the Ministry of Health and Welfare commenced research aimed at discovering an immunity to allergies. In a drive to step up these efforts, the ministry is inviting input from independent researchers. Regarding the use of parasitic antiallergens, the ministry is cautiously optimistic: "The theory has interesting academic implications, although whether or not it could be used as an actual treatment for patients is uncertain." In any event, it believes the concept shows merit as a subject of further research.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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