Background: Sensitization to allergen is common in rural populations in less affluent countries, but atopic disease is less frequent than in richer countries. Variables explaining this dichotomy may provide insight into underlying mechanisms of atopic diseases like asthma.
Objective: To test whether risk of exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB) in urbanized African populations is increased in association with greater skin sensitivity or increased body mass.
Methods: A total of 3322 children were enrolled in a prevalence survey of EIB in urban and rural South Africa. Children responding positively to an exercise challenge and a random sample of children responding negatively were recruited into a case-control study (393 controls, 380 cases). Subjects were investigated by using allergen skin prick testing, anthropometry, and assay of IgE. Stools were analyzed for parasite infestation.
Results: The prevalence of EIB was higher in urban (14.9%) than rural (8.9%) areas (P < .0001). The difference in risk of EIB between urban and rural subjects was associated with atopy (odds ratio [OR] for upper tertile of skin wheal diameter, 2.65; 95% CI, 1.43-4.89; P < .0001), increasing weight (OR for upper tertile of body mass index [BMI], 2.17; 95% CI, 1.45-3.26; P = .001), and affluence. Increasing BMI was also associated with a greater strength of association between specific IgE and the corresponding skin test (Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus, OR for a positive skin test result in presence of specific IgE: heavier subjects, OR, 34.6; 95% CI, 0.9-109.3; P < .0001; lighter subjects, OR, 8.05; 95% CI, 2.74-23.6; P < .001).
Conclusion: Increases in BMI of rural children in subsistence economies may lead to an increased prevalence of atopic disease. This observation merits further investigation in prospective studies.