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Starting this month, Israelis will have monthly pollen forecasts to help them plan precautionary measures for allergies and survive the pollen season with minimal discomfort.

The Environmental Protection Ministry and Tel Aviv University project was led by the late Prof. Yoav Waisel, who passed away last week, before he could see it completed.

Over the next few days the ministry intends to release this month's forecast, based on information collected by Department of Plant Sciences faculty from the university's botanical garden.

This month's forecast will cover only the Tel Aviv region, but plans are in place to produce pollen counts for additional areas.

The ministry hopes the information will be transmitted by several news sources, so that it reaches the widest possible audience.

Pollen from various species of plants can compromise the human respiratory system and ocular membranes, and lead to skin inflammation, rhinitis (runny nose) and coughing. In severe cases it may cause asthma, and even eye diseases and malaria.

Experts believe 15 percent of Israelis suffer from some form of pollen allergy, similar to the percentage in most Western countries.

"The forecast we are preparing is based on daily pollen examinations of the plants in the botanical garden," said Valentina Epstein, who is collecting pollen samples along with colleague Amram Eshel. "We also check pollen concentrations in the air. We don't include that figure in the pollen forecast, but it does provide a good picture of the preceding month, and can help physicians understand why a patient has developed a certain allergy."

Among the plants to be included in the forecast are oak, eucalyptus and olive trees, as well as a variety of allergy-causing shrubs.

Common misconceptions

Data provided by the Israeli Allergology Association indicate that the coming days are expected to bring relatively high levels of pollen.

People with allergies are advised to avoid areas believed to have high pollen concentrations and to close windows while indoors, as well as to consult with a doctor.

"For people with allergies, these forecasts will be as important as weather forecasts," said Dr. Carmi Geller-Bernstein, an allergy expert. "People planning vacations should generally try to avoid areas where pollinating plants are located, and to generally be aware of problematic plants that are in the pollination phase."

Geller-Bernstein noted that there are many plants, such as citrus trees, that are believed to cause pollen allergies but do not, because their pollen is carried by insects, not by the wind. "If someone starts showing allergies in an orchard, it is probably due to weeds in the area. Different kinds of weeds, as well as grass, contain tiny pollen sacs that can cause allergies."

Surveying airborne allergens brings Israel in line with other developed nations, said Dr. Levana Kordova-Biezuner, scientific director of the national air-monitoring system at the Environmental Protection Ministry.

"Refraining from exposure to allergens can reduce allergy incidence and suffering for many people. This is particularly important for children and immigrants arriving from areas with different climates," she said. "Allergy problems can even lead to economic problems such as lost workdays, increased medicine intake and hospitalization."