Background The prevalence of atopic disease among children in the formerly socialist countries in Europe, with a life style similar to that prevailing in Western Europe 30–40 years ago, is low, whereas there has been a pronounced increase in industrialized countries over the last decades. The environment during infancy influences the risk of developing allergy for many years, perhaps even for life.
Objective To investigate the development of allergen-specific cytokine responses during the first 2 years of life in two geographically adjacent countries with marked differences in living conditions and incidence of atopic diseases, i.e. Estonia and Sweden.
Methods The development of immune responses to food (β-lactoglobulin (BLG) and ovalbumin (OVA)) and inhalant (cat and birch) allergens was studied from birth up to the age of 2 years in 30 Estonian and 76 Swedish infants. Clinical investigation and skin prick tests were performed and blood samples were obtained at birth and at 3, 6, 12 and 24 months.
Results The levels of IL-5, IL-10 and IL-13 secreted by peripheral blood mononuclear cells stimulated with BLG, OVA and cat allergen in Estonian and Swedish infants declined during the first 3 months of life. All cytokines then progressively increased in the Swedish infants, indicating the replacement of non-specifically responding immature cord blood T cells with specific T memory cells, which are primed postnatally. The resurgence of allergen-specific responses in the Estonian infants was less marked. These differences were particularly notable for birch-specific T cell responses, which correlated with development of atopic disease in the Swedish children.
Conclusions The development of specific T cell memory to food and inhalant allergens during the first 2 years of life differs between infants living in Sweden and Estonia, and mirrors the disparate patterns of expression of allergic disease which subsequently develops in the respective populations.