Canberra is still the nations Hotspot for Hay fever – but not quite all of it!

Over the past 2 years (2014-2015) the Canberra Pollen app has been downloaded and used by over 11,000 people. The information generated from the mobile survey has allowed us to pinpoint suburbs within the ACT and immediate surrounds that recorded the most severe hay fever suffering during the 2014 and 2015 season (see Figure 1). The survey responses were broken down into five categories (ranging from no symptoms to severe symptoms) and these are displayed as the deviation from the mean response across the region. So those areas that are below zero (blue and green suburbs) all below average symptom responses. The suburbs that are yellow represent the mean response in the survey, and the suburbs that are orange or red all registered high level (above average) symptoms. The results show that there are a number of suburbs that continue to be well above the regional mean and can be considered as hotspots for hay fever (red suburbs). The hotspot suburbs include: Casey, Forde, and Franklin in Gungahlin; Melba, Holt and Higgins in Belconnon; Dickson and Reid in northern Canberra; and Macarthur, Gilmore, Isabella Plains and Calwell in Tuggeronong.

Figure 1. Hotspots for hay fever suffering in Canberra and the region for 2014-2015. Suburbs marked in red are those where respondents reported the highest levels of hay fever suffering throughout the season. Suburbs marks in blue show a strong negative deviation from the mean implying low levels of hay fever suffering across the season.

Most of these suburbs were reported last year as hotspots for hay fever, so the fact that in the second year of this survey we see the same areas recording hotspots for hay fever suggests that there may be some areas in the city that are worth avoiding if you suffer from severe hay fever or are susceptible to asthma attacks. The reason why these areas are hotspots remains unclear. Environmental factors are the likely to be at least in part causing these hotspots. The proximity of the Gungahlin, Belconnen and Tuggeronong suburbs to open pasture (grasslands) and pine plantations (particularly near Macarthur/Gilmore/Calwell and Holt/Higgins) may be a factor in those areas. The inner city suburbs of Reid and Dickson may be distant from grasslands but they have many streets lined with some highly allergenic trees such as the Plane Tree and Oak Trees.

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The rise and fall of Paterson’s Curse pollen

Paterson’s Curse (Echium plantagineum) is a significant invasive plant introduced to Australia from the Old World regions in the 1850s. Paterson's Curse has been a dominant broadleaf pasture weed through much of southern Australia and also infests native grasslands, heathlands and woodlands. It is wind and insect pollinated and produces large amounts of pollen during September to January, peaking in October and November. The pollen has been been linked to allergy risk for rural as well as urban populations.

Recent media coverage of research into the potential toxic impact of Paterson’s Curse pollen on the honey industry has generated comments about the declining amount of this pollen type being present in the environment due to biological control agents introduced in the last few years.

The graph below depicts the cumulative amount of pollen in Canberra’s atmosphere for each season from 2007 to 2015 and shows that Paterson’s Curse pollen abundance has been steadily declining over the last decade. In 2015 we recorded NO Paterson’s Curse pollen in the Spring to Summer count. This may represent a temporary or longer-term collapse of the Paterson’s Curse weed population in the ACT and region. Either way its good news for allergy sufferers and honey producers/consumers alike.

 

Figure shows the cumulative Echium plantagineum pollen load for Canberra illustrated for individual years since recording began in 2007 (Oct-Dec recording period). Echium pollen was found to be absent in 2015.

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Real Estate agents and 18-25 year olds hit hardest by hay fever in the ACT

The pollen monitoring season may came to a end on the 31st December 2015 but since then I have been sifting through the data and begin to discover new insights into how pollen impacts on different parts of the population in our region. In 2015 the CanberraPollen project introduced an extended survey option to the mobile app that included questions about participants work area, age and gender. The results are now in and there are some interesting patterns in the data that we report here. Overall the response to our survey has been excellent with around 4000 people filling in the new survey questions out of a total of 11000 people who have downloaded the app. This represents a significant portion of the ACT population (>1% engage with the survey) with the app downloads and information reaching around 3% of the total population.

What did the survey tell us? The graphs below show the average symptom score response derived from the 4000 participants (ranging from 1-5 with 1= none and 5= severe) in three selected areas of interest: Occupation, Gender and Age. They also show the % of participants using some form of medical intervention to treat their hay fever symptoms during the season.

These results can be summarized as follows for gender and age (Figure 1):

  1. Female and male participants show only a slight difference in average symptom scores with females reporting slightly more severe symptoms on average compared to males (consistent with AIHW Report in 2011).
  2. A similar % of female and male participants report using some form of medical intervention to treat their hay fever symptoms during the season (63-65%).
  3. There is a declining trend in symptom scores from younger to older participants. The younger participants are less likely to use hay fever treatments than the older cohorts, with the exception of the 61+ age category who report using the least amount of medical intervention of all despite having low symptom scores.

Figure 1: Gender and Age versus Average Daily Symptom Score (including standard error). The percentage of participants using some form of medical intervention to treat their hay fever symptoms during the season appears above each histogram.

The results for the Occupation category can be summarized as follows (Figure 2):

  1. 26 different occupation categories had >10 participants (total of 3830 respondents) in this survey and they are listed from lowest average symptom score to most severe symptom score in Figure 2.
  2. Participants in occupations that report the most severe symptoms throughout the season include those working in Real Estate, Hospitality, Community Services, Advertising and Architecture. Many of these occupations require the employee to travel to a variety of work sites rather than spend lots of time in the same office, which may expose them to a greater variety of pollen types during the season.
  3. Participants in occupations that report low symptom scores throughout the season include those working in Mining, Engineering, Retail, Trades and Management. Some of these occupations require the employee to work outdoors, however, this would include construction/mining sites where vegetation is sparse or where work is conducted in office environments.

Figure 2: Occupation versus Average Daily Symptom Score (including standard error).

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