Do helminth parasites protect against atopy and allergic disease?

Clin Exp Allergy. 2009 Jan;39(1):20-32. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2222.2008.03134.x.


Allergic diseases are rare in areas with high helminth parasite exposure and common where helminth exposure is lacking or significantly reduced, such as urban areas of developing countries and industrialized nations. Studies suggest that helminths induce a systemic immuno-modulatory network, including regulatory T cells and anti-inflammatory IL-10, which might play a key role in the protection against the allergic phenotype. Here, we review the current cross-sectional, birth cohort, and intervention study evidence for a protective effect of helminth infection on allergy. There is increasing evidence for a causal relationship between helminth infection and reduced skin prick test responsiveness to allergens. Cross-sectional studies have shown a consistent negative relationship, and these results have been confirmed in several, although not all, intervention studies. The immunological basis for this protective effect is less clear. Recent studies do not support the mast-cell IgE saturation hypothesis, but suggest that protection is associated with IL-10 production. As for allergic disease, cross-sectional studies support a negative relationship between clinical asthma and infection with some helminth species, particularly hookworm, but more studies are required to draw conclusions for eczema and rhinitis. In addition, none of the few intervention studies to date have demonstrated an increase in clinical allergy after helminth treatment, and further studies are needed. Furthermore, we are only beginning to understand the host genetic factors that are potentially involved. A genetically predetermined T-helper type 2 cell-dominated cytokine milieu reduces parasite burden and may enhance host survival in an environment where helminth parasites are prevalent. Lack of parasite exposure in such hosts might lead to hypersensitivity to seemingly minor environmental allergen stimuli. Large birth cohort studies in helminth-endemic areas that use epidemiological, genetic, and immunological tools are required to further examine how helminth parasites affect the development of atopy and allergic disease. Intervention studies with hookworm in parasite-naïve allergic individuals are currently ongoing in the United Kingdom to test the above hypotheses further.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Child
  • Cohort Studies
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Helminthiasis / immunology
  • Helminthiasis / parasitology
  • Helminths / immunology*
  • Host-Parasite Interactions*
  • Humans
  • Hypersensitivity / prevention & control*
  • Hypersensitivity, Immediate / prevention & control*