Background: Asthma is reported to be rare in traditional rural communities, but is thought to be increasing as lifestyles become more urbanized or 'western'.
Objectives: A community-based survey of non-communicable diseases was conducted from October 1996 to June 1997, and included comparison of the prevalence of asthma, smoking and chronic cough in rural and urban Gambia.
Methods: A cluster sample survey was conducted in a random sample of rural and urban adults (> or = 15 years of age). Subjects were asked about respiratory symptoms using a locally adapted version based on the IULTD questionnaire. Spirometry (basal, methacholine provocation and reversibility with a bronchodilator) and skin prick tests were performed on a randomly selected subsample of all subjects and those who, when interviewed, said they wheezed or had been diagnosed as asthmatic by a doctor.
Results: Out of 2166 participants in the urban population, 4.1% reported having had wheezing or whistling in the chest in the previous 12 months, 3.6% reported doctor-diagnosed asthma, and 0.6% chronic cough. In the rural population with 3223 participants these figures were 3.3%, 0.7% and 1.2%, respectively. Wheeze was more common in women, cough for 3 months of the year was more common in the age-groups 45+. Those who reported that they currently smoked accounted for 34% in urban and 42% in rural men. Figures were much lower for women (1.5% and 6.0%). Seven out of 574 randomly selected subjects (1.4%) exhibited bronchial hyper-responsiveness to methacholine challenge. Four of 133 (3.0%) people with self-reported wheeze and 3/69 (4.3%) participants with doctor-diagnosed asthma reacted positively on bronchial provocation with methacholine. There was a remarkably high prevalence of positive skin prick tests to aeroallergens: 38% in participants with a history of wheeze and 27% in those without.
Conclusion: The prevalence of wheeze (particularly in association with bronchial hyper-responsiveness) was low in both rural and urban Gambia. This is in contrast to the relatively high prevalence of positive skin prick tests to aeroallergens (in both wheezers and non-wheezers), questioning the mechanisms of interaction between allergy and asthma and the presence of protective factors against asthma in this West African population. The high smoking rates justify international concern about tobacco marketing in developing societies.