Since the incidence of tuberculosis is steadily declining in Finland and infections by environmental mycobacteria may be increasing, the aim of the present study was to evaluate the development of tuberculin reactivity and sensitization to environmental mycobacteria.
Healthy Finnish schoolchildren aged 10.4–12.4 yrs (n=201) were tested with tuberculin purified protein derivative RT23, Mycobacterium scrofulaceum RS95 and M. fortuitum RS20 sensitins. The same children had been previously tested with the same antigens and methods at the age of 4–6 yrs in 1989. Rapid waning of tuberculin reactivity and decrease in sensitization to environmental mycobacteria were observed between 4–6 yrs.
Both tuberculin and sensitin skin reaction sizes decreased significantly over the 6-yrs period. The mean tuberculin skin reaction size was 3.2 mm in diameter, which was significantly (p<0.001) smaller than the mean induration size (4.8 mm) at the age of 4–6 yrs. Similarly, the mean skin reaction sizes to M. scrofulaceum and M. fortuitum sensitins were 3.4 and 1.7 mm, respectively, which were significantly (p<0.001) smaller than 6 yrs earlier (mean 4.5 and 3.1 mm). The number of zero reactions to all antigens increased significantly during the follow-up period. Contacts with pets or farm animals were associated with larger reactions. In contrast, children suffering from allergic symptoms had smaller reactions.
Contacts with mycobacteria, either with Mycobacterium tuberculosis or environmental mycobacteria, seem to be too rare to maintain tuberculin responsiveness and a high sensitivity to other mycobacteria. Different bacille Calmette-Guérin vaccine products and dosages used, the declining incidence of tuberculosis and geographical factors, which can influence environmental mycobacterial exposure, may explain the disparity between the present and previous Finnish studies.