Hayfever sufferers, be warned — avoid at all costs the allergy capital of the world

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. How's your pollen count today? Not bad here in Boston, thanks to the rain. But if you suffer from Springtime allergies, be grateful you’re not in Islamabad. Pakistan’s capital is known this time of year as the allergy capital of the world. Here in the US, it’s bad when the pollen count reaches 9,000 particles per cubic meter. In Islamabad, the count can surpass 50,000. All this caught my attention when I saw a tweet by reporter Bina Shah. It read “Islamabad's pollen is so strong, no antihistamine has any effect on it. They should rename it Kryptonite.” Well, Bina joins us now from her home in Karachi. Do you think this pollen could really take down Superman, Bina?

Bina Shah: Well, it took me down, so I think Superman would have a hard time.

Werman: Yeah, you're Superwoman. So tell us what it was like when you took that first breath of air in Islamabad. Was it kind of an instantaneous reaction?

Shah: No, actually. When you travel to Islamabad from any other city, especially Karachi, which is in the south and it’s very hot, you think “Wow, the air is so fresh, there’s so many beautiful trees and it’s so green and look at the flowers.” Maybe an hour or so later you’re just like “Oh my God.”

Werman: You don’t have these problems in Karachi but you encountered them in Islamabad? Can you see the pollen in the air there?

Shah: You can actually see this very fine dusty, misty look in the mountains, which are all around Islamabad. You can see it almost all day.

Werman: Does it make things smell different in Islamabad? Is it associated with a certain type of tree?

Shah: It’s absolutely associated with a tree called the paper mulberry, which was planted in Islamabad to green things up but what they didn't know was that it has extremely high levels of pollen. The tree has just taken over in the last ten years and it makes people sick.

Werman: When you go to Islamabad, are you able to compare it to other pollen hot spots, like maybe here in the US, standing in a wheat field in Kentucky?

Shah: Well, I was in a wheat field in Iowa and I felt something but I certainly wasn't taken out the way that it took me out in Islamabad and I came back with a sinus infection.

Werman: Were you able to take anything that had any effect on it?

Shah: I was taking antihistamines, I was doing nasal sprays, I was doing nasal washes, rinses, you name it, it didn't help.

Werman: How do people in Islamabad cope with it?

Shah: Well, they get onto really strong antihistamines. I think they take something called Singulair and they do what they can, but a lot of people actually have to leave when it’s the height of pollen season. Allergies sufferers are miserable but it’s the asthma sufferers that are actually in real danger when it’s high pollen season.

Werman: Fortunately for you, you live in Karachi so you can just go back home. What happened to you?

Shah: I went up there with a cold and I thought “Oh, this is no big deal.” But it just seemed to get worse and worse and by the time I came back I knew that things were not okay. I would just have moments in Islamabad where it would just descend on me and suddenly I would feel like my head was really ready to explode. It was actually hard to breathe.

Werman: We wish you well and we hope you recuperate soon, Bina. What do they say in Pakistan when someone sneezes?

Shah: Al-ham-du-lillah.

Werman: Al-ham-du-lillah, so, there you go.

Shah: Thank you.

Werman: Reporter Bina Shah, thank you for your time.

Shah: Thank you very much.

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