“In this country, we need to take note of the air we breathe and make sure that this air is clean.” These words were spoken by Dr Martin Balzan, a consultant on Respiratory Medicine and General Medicine at the Mater Dei Hospital during a recent interview by the Voice of the Workers. 

Dr Balzan explained that studies that have been carried out consistently throughout the last 20 years have shown that the rate of respiratory diseases in Malta is among the highest in Europe. He said that when we refer to respiratory diseases we are talking about asthma and hay fever. 

He said that normally, in Europe, the lower down you go, the lower the prevalence. In Malta, the reverse is true and statistics show that the percentage of respiratory disease in Malta is higher than that in Northern European countries. 

When he was asked to explain the principle causes of allergies and respiratory disease, Dr Balzan said that, although it has not been scientifically proven, nowadays the cause of such diseases is generally accepted to be fine dust in the air that cannot be seen unless it is caught in the headlights. These tiny dots in the air enter the breathing tube and inflame the lining of the lung. This fine dust can either cause such inflammation directly or lead to allergies that are commonly caused by house dust mites. These are very small insects that are found in bedlinen and that eat skin flakes. People can become allergic to this insect’s faeces.   

Furthermore, there are a number of plants such as the sticky-weed and species of the thistle plant that can cause allergies. Cats can also be the cause of allergies for many people. 

Dr Balzan explained that, like in other years, the prevalence of allergies has been high and will remain so. “On the basis of number of people visiting the hospital, I can say that the situation has remained more or less the same,” said the consultant. 

How can we prevent these diseases? Dr Balzan explained that in the case of air pollution the source needs to be tackled and the source in Malta is primarily cars with diesel engines. Having said this, although petrol cars have a catalytic converter, they still pollute during the first quarter of an hour until they warm up. 

On an individual level, one could undergo a number of allergy tests, both skin and blood tests, at hospital, and if one is found to be allergic to something, the doctors would advise a course of action. To avoid house dust mites, the advice is to change the bedlinen as often as possible and wash it or boil it at 60 degrees Celcius. This would kill off the small insects. Curtains and carpets also have a tendency to accumulate house dust mite faeces.  

With regard to pollens, Dr Balzan said that it is difficult to protect oneself from them and the only advice one can give, though impractical, is to stay indoors as much as possible. 

On a general note, Dr Balzan concluded that when Government is deciding on policies that concern air quality and traffic, it should ensure that clean air is a priority.