Background: Most of the effort directed at understanding the role infections have in preventing allergy has focused on bacteria and viruses and their ability to divert the immune system towards T-helper-1 responses and away from proallergic T-helper-2 responses. However, helminth infections, highly prevalent in large parts of the developing world, where allergy is uncommon, stimulate strong T-helper-2 responses. We investigated the influence of chronic helminth infections on the prevalence of atopy and aimed to understand the relation at a detailed immunological level.
Methods: 520 Gabonese schoolchildren were tested for skin reaction to house-dust mite and other allergens, for Schistosoma haematobium eggs in urine, and for microfilariae in blood samples. Total and mite-specific IgE antibodies were measured. A subsample selected on the basis of their skin test to house-dust mite received detailed immunological investigations.
Findings: Children with urinary schistosomiasis had a lower prevalence of a positive skin reaction to house-dust mite than those free of this infection (odds ratio 0.32 [95% CI 0.16-0.63]). The degree of sensitisation to house-dust mite could not explain this difference in skin-prick positivity. Schistosome-antigen-specific concentrations of interleukin-10 were significantly higher in infected children, and higher specific concentrations of this anti-inflammatory cytokine were negatively associated with the outcome of skin-test reactivity to mite (0.53 [0.30-0.96]). No association between polyclonal IgE antibodies and skin-test results was found.
Interpretation: The anti-inflammatory cytokine, interleukin-10, induced in chronic schistosomiasis, appears central to suppressing atopy in African children.