Spring has sprung … and so could Australia’s first national pollen monitoring system

Photo: Thinkstock

Photo: Thinkstock

In summary: 
  • Hay fever and episodic asthma triggered by grass pollen regularly affects more than 3 million Australians
  • AusPollen, a national pollen alert system, is being developed to provide relevant, accurate and localised information to pollen allergy sufferers and to evaluate if this leads to better self-management of allergies

Allergic rhinitis, more commonly known as hay fever, affects 18 per cent of Australians each year, yet Australia is one of the few developed countries without a national pollen monitoring system.

Professor Alfredo Huete, from the UTS:Climate Change Cluster (C3), is part of a research team planning to change that with the official commencement of the AusPollen project, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

The team of 10 researchers, led by Associate Professor Janet Davies from the Queensland University of Technology, received a $626,442 grant under the NHMRC Partnership Project for Better Health for “AusPollen: Implementation of a standardised national pollen alert system for better management of allergic respiratory health”.

“Pollen monitoring is very labour-intensive and difficult to keep up, maintain and get long-term funding to do,” Professor Huete says. Professor Huete leads the Ecosystem Dynamics, Health and Resilience research program within C3.

“This will be the first time a national ‘standardised’ network will be promoted.”

AusPollen will directly inform asthma and allergy sufferers, and their doctors, about local grass pollen levels using a standardised pollen count network and a smartphone app.

The project will determine whether providing pollen alert information enables better self-management of allergies, thus improving patients’ quality of life and decreasing the medical and socioeconomic burden of hay fever and asthma.

Professor Huete, who spent 12 years developing satellite algorithms for NASA, is responsible for the satellite monitoring aspects of this research.

“We hope to be able to identify and map the locations of pollen-producing grasses with satellite surveillance and further track the phenology of the allergenic grasses through to their flowering and pollen release periods,” Professor Huete says.

“This is expected to greatly improve our forecasting capability of the pollen season and help in the development of pollen models that can predict the timing of the worst stages of the pollen season.”

It is predicted that by 2050 the number of patients affected by allergic diseases in Australia will have increased by 70 per cent, to 7.7 million.

Professor Huete says this spring will be a severe hay fever season for Australia.

“Preliminary looks at the satellite data and meteorological conditions thus far this year are suggesting that we are in for a higher than average, if not serious, hay fever season in Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra.”

Professor Huete believes that once the short-term impacts are evaluated, AusPollen could have far-reaching long-term impacts, as it will provide data for future health service planning and policy development.

“[AusPollen could lead to] better local council management of the responsible allergenic species and where they are planted or found,” he says.

“The industry could also be better prepared with stocks of medicine and based on demonstrable public welfare, one could [ensure] the continual funding of pollen count traps.”

Professor Huete is eager to explore new research and design new methods and models.

“I’m excited about the potential of satellite technologies to advance ecological forecasting capabilities that have direct public health outcomes,” he says.

Professor Huete has recently been in Japan presenting the project to JAXA (Japan Space Agency). He says the agency’s new satellite sensor could advance this work.

The AusPollen project partners include the Australian Society for Clinical Immunology and Allergy, Asthma Australia, Stallergenes Pty Ltd, Bureau of Meteorology, the Federal Institute of Meteorology and Climatology (MeteoSwiss) and the CSIRO. Funding for the project is spread over four years.

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Health and Science