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Islamabad: The Allergy Capital of the World

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There have been abnormally high pollen counts in the southern United States. On March 19, Atlanta saw a pollen count of 9,000 particles per cubic meter, a new record from the previous high of 8,164 pollens per cubic meter. You will find the allergy maps glowing bright red in the southern United States. A health emergency of sorts for millions of people, it is not. There is a place in the world where a pollen count of 9,000 is considered minimal. Yes, I am talking about Islamabad, the pollen allergy capital of the world.

The pollen count in Islamabad hovers above 30,000 particles per cubic meter during the peak season. And that is not considered a record high. It regularly tops 40,000 and there have been years when it went all the way up to 55,000. In March and early April, when the city blossoms with flowers and plants, nearly one-third of the population hides in the darkest chambers of their houses. Those who can afford leave the city. A minor exodus is experienced at the intracity bus terminals and railway stations. Destination: anywhere out of Islamabad, even if it is 10 miles away.

What causes this world-record-setting pollen counts? Broussonetia papyrifera or paper mulberry, as it is commonly known. It was imported from the Far East when the capital was built in the early 1960s. Islamabad has a rough terrain dotted with dozens of torrential streams. It did not have much vegetation except for bushes and wild olives. City planners dropped thousands of seeds from helicopters and thus began the story of death and suffering. The non-native species destroyed the native vegetation. Islamabad is now a green city, as the city planners had envisioned, but most of the vegetation is paper mulberry.

People call it the stubbornest of trees. It does not require any external help to grow. You will find it growing in backyards, stream banks, sidewalks -- practically any open space. There have been drives to cull the killer in the past, but they did not yield tangible results. It is a monster that is very hard to get rid of.

"It feels like someone is asphyxiating me. I have to sleep on a chair otherwise my breathing will stop," said Rafat, a mother of two who has been suffering from pollen allergy. She has no choice but to put up with the condition, like thousands of other victims. She wears a mask and tries to stay indoors. Those who have to venture out -- and this constitutes the majority -- can be found trying to catch their breath on the sidewalks, sneezing, pumping inhalers and wiping their eyes.

"We receive hundreds of patients each day who need treatment," said Jamal, a doctor working at an asthma clinic. City hospitals add dozens of beds to treat allergy patients. Oxygen cylinders, humidifiers and inhalers run out of supply and dealers profit from the suffering of the people.

Niaz, a retired city administrator, regrets the decision of importing paper mulberry. "We should have focused on our native species. We had no idea that it would turn out to be such a nightmare," he said. There is still hope for the people. A massive culling of the culprits, according to Niaz, can bring some comfort to the victims of pollen allergies. The chopped trees can be replaced with a species that does not come with the baggage.

It is still a proposal though. The tough mulberry will put up a good fight. And people will continue to suffer in the meantime.

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