Put Forth an Effective Prescription for Overcoming This ‘National Disease’

Hay fever, which can turn a pleasant, sunny spring into days of dreariness, is a “national disease” that afflicts many people. It is hoped that the central government will come up with effective measures to ease the suffering.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called a meeting of ministers concerned with hay fever and ordered them to come up with measures to be implemented over the next 10 years. These steps are expected to be reflected in the Basic Policy on Economic and Fiscal Management and Reform that will be released in June.

The measures are expected to focus on three pillars: “accelerate the felling of cedar trees that are the source of pollen,” “improve pollen dispersal forecasts through artificial intelligence and other means” and “disseminate treatment methods.” If the government is serious about tackling this issue, it should present the public with a solid road map for improvement.

People with cedar pollen allergies account for as much as 40% of the population. This marks an increase of more than 20 percentage points over the past 20 years. Also notable is how it is affecting younger age brackets, with 50% of teenagers and 30% of those 5 to 9 suffering from symptoms.

Hay fever is caused when the immune system overreacts as it attacks pollen as a foreign substance. In recent years, the number of drugs to alleviate symptoms has increased, and “sublingual immunotherapy,” in which the allergen is administered over a long period of time to increase immunity to it, has come into practical use.

It is important that patients suffering from serious symptoms be able to choose the most appropriate treatment for them.

However, medical expenses for allergic rhinitis, including hay fever, come to about ¥360 billion annually, just for insurance-covered treatment alone. The hit to the national economy caused by hay fever is also believed to be enormous.

If the aim is to achieve a radical change for the better, it is necessary to take measures that reduce the source of hay fever. The dispersal of large amounts of cedar and Japanese cypress pollen is the result of a past government policy to promote afforestation during the period of rapid economic growth, and can be described as a kind of pollution. It is only natural that the government take responsibility and implement measures against it.

Cedar trees account for 40% of all planted forests in Japan. More than half are at least 50 years old, putting them in the appropriate period for commercial felling, but have been left unattended. This is because the domestic forestry industry has slumped under pressure from growing imports of cheap foreign timber.

However, domestic timber has been gaining attention as the prices of imports soar because of the combination of the coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the weak yen. There are movements around Japan to utilize domestic timber for housing, furniture and other products.

It is vitally important for the government to seize this opportunity to promote logging and the utilization of domestic timber. As logging picks up, replanting with low-pollen species will also likely make progress. There are many issues to be addressed, such as labor shortages, but it is hoped that the government will devise ways by making the most of the knowledge gained from efforts made around the country.

In some areas, the amount of cedar pollen dispersed this season has been the highest in a decade, likely producing many new sufferers of hay fever. It is also said that yellow sands blowing in from China may aggravate the symptoms of hay fever. Hopefully, any further increase in sufferers can be halted.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 21, 2023)