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19th Jan 2020

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Atopic eczema patients want more understanding

  • British singer Adele is one of the millions of Europeans who have suffered with eczema in their life (Photo: Kristopher Harris)

Patients suffering from the itchy eczema are calling for more awareness, as the chronic disease is on the increase in Europe - together with other allergies.

Atopic eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is a type of inflammation of the skin that results in red, swollen, extremely itchy, and cracked skin. The inflammation occurs because the body produces antibodies in response to an allergen.

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Although the causes are not clear, experts believe the rise could be due to environmental factors associated with urbanisation.

The prevalence of atopic eczema has increased two- to three-fold over the last 40 years.

Atopic eczema affects up to 20 percent of children and up to three percent of adults in northern Europe - where the number is higher than in southern Europe. A Swedish study even reports that up to 50 percent of girls aged 13-15 suffer or have suffered from atopic eczema, compared to five percent in the south.

Another study from Statistics Netherlands revealed this week that 5.5 percent of the Dutch population suffer from atopic eczema compared to 4.5 percent almost 20 years ago.

"It is hard to say exactly how many Europeans suffer from atopic eczema because there is no clear definition of it", said Susanna Palkonen, Director of the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients Associations (EFA).

Still no cure

"There is also a difference in how the diagnosis is made in the different European countries," Palkonen told EUobserver - namely, whether it is made by the family doctor or by a specialist doctor.

There are also other types of eczema like irritant and allergic contact dermatitis that affects around 10 percent of adults in Europe, with many cases related to exposures in the workplace.

For almost 10 percent of patients with atopic eczema, the condition is severe. The disease usually appears in early life and in around half of the cases it will persist into adulthood, and many people with atopic eczema go on to develop hay fever or asthma - another chronic disease on the increase in Europe.

In Europe, some 80 million people suffer from some sort of allergy. Allergic diseases can be managed effectively, but still not cured.

A European Commission report on the state of health in Europe said already in 2009 that "the dramatic rise of the cumulative incidence of atopic eczema in early childhood is particularly worrying" because of how it persists and can further develop.

Having severe eczema can sometimes compromise the ability to face life, pointed out a survey on patients made by EFA and released on Friday (14 September), the World Atopic Eczema Day.

Socio-economic burden

A flare-up can heavily affect the patients' quality of life and have work and socio-economic burdens, in terms of money spent on special creams, detergents, and medication, and in terms of school or work days' missed.

"The more severe the symptoms, the more severe the impact on life is," the survey said.

Patients also react very differently to medicines and treatments. "Atopic eczema is diagnosed on how it looks," said Bernd Arents, who has suffered from atopic eczema all his life and a long-time volunteer with the Dutch Atopic Eczema Patient's Association.

"But even if it looks the same and itches the same, the way the immune system reacts is different," he said. "So some treatments makes wonders for some, while others react better to other treatments," he said, adding that mindfulness also helps dealing with the flare-ups of eczema.

Arents also worked on the EFA patient survey report, which calls for more information and better understanding for patients, healthcare providers and policy makers; more research into atopic eczema; and more affordable healthcare.

Allergic disease and asthma on the rise in Europe

The number of Europeans with allergies has been growing extensively since the mid-1950s. Although some European countries have reached a peak, the overall number of citizens with allergic diseases continues to grow.

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