Rationale: Atopic sensitization has long been known to be related to asthma in children, but its role in determining asthma prevalence remains to be elucidated further.
Objectives: To investigate the role of atopic sensitization in the large international variation in the prevalence of childhood asthma.
Methods: Cross-sectional studies of random samples of 8- to 12-year-old children (n = 1,000 per center) were performed according to the standardized methodology of Phase Two of the International Study of Asthma and Allergy in Childhood (ISAAC). Thirty study centers in 22 countries worldwide participated and reflect a wide range of living conditions, from rural Africa to urban Europe. Data were collected by parental questionnaires (n = 54,439), skin prick tests (n = 31,759), and measurements of allergen-specific IgE levels in serum (n = 8,951). Economic development was assessed by gross national income per capita (GNI).
Measurements and main results: The prevalence of current wheeze (i.e., during the past year) ranged from 0.8% in Pichincha (Ecuador) to 25.6% in Uruguaiana (Brazil). The fraction of current wheeze attributable to atopic sensitization ranged from 0% in Ankara (Turkey) to 93.8% in Guangzhou (China). There were no correlations between prevalence rates of current wheeze and atopic sensitization, and only weak correlations of both with GNI. However, the fractions and prevalence rates of wheeze attributable to skin test reactivity correlated strongly with GNI (Spearman rank-order coefficient rho = 0.50, P = 0.006, and rho = 0.74, P < 0.0001, respectively). In addition, the strength of the association between current wheeze and skin test reactivity, assessed by odds ratios, increased with GNI (rho = 0.47, P = 0.01).
Conclusions: The link between atopic sensitization and asthma symptoms in children differs strongly between populations and increases with economic development.