Background: Asthma and allergy in developing countries may be associated with adoption of an urbanised "western" lifestyle. We compared the rates of asthma symptoms and atopy in urban populations in Jimma, southwest Ethiopia, at an early stage of economic development with those among the population of remote, rural, subsistence areas, and assessed the potential role of environmental aetiological factors leading to the differences.
Methods: Information on wheeze of 12 months' duration, diagnosed asthma, and cough for 3 months of the year was gathered by questionnaire in random household samples of 9844 people from urban Jimma and of 3032 from rural areas. Atopy was defined by allergen skin-test response to Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus and mixed threshings measured in a one-in-four subsample of those aged 5 years and older from both groups.
Findings: All respiratory symptoms were rare in children and were significantly less common overall in the rural than in urban group (wheeze odds ratio 0.31 [95% CI 0.22-0.43], p < 0.0001). Asthma was reported by 351 (3.6%) of the urban group, with a median reported duration of 8.5 years (IQR 4-17 years) that was unrelated to age. Atopy was a strong risk factor for asthma in urban Jimma. In the rural areas, skin sensitivity to mixed threshings was only slightly less common than in urban Jimma (0.67 [0.40-1.12], p = 0.13), whereas sensitivity to D pteronyssinus was significantly more common (3.24 [2.40-4.38], p < 0.0001), and since none of the 119 atopic individuals in the rural area reported wheeze or asthma, atopy was possibly associated with a reduction in the risk of disease among this group. Wheeze or D pteronyssinus sensitivity were positively associated with housing style, bedding materials, and use of malathion insecticide, but no single factor accounted for the urban-rural differences.
Interpretation: Wheeze and asthma are especially rare in rural subsistence areas, and atopy may be associated with a reduced prevalence of these symptoms in this environment. In urban Jimma, self-reported asthma seemed to emerge as a clinical problem about 10 years before our study began, which is consistent with an effect of new environmental exposures. The factor or factors leading to the increase in asthma and allergy have not been identified, although exposures related to general changes in the domestic environment are likely to be involved.