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Keywords:

  • allergy;
  • asthma;
  • farm life style;
  • ‘hygiene hypothesis’

Summary

About 15 years have gone by since Strachan first proposed the idea that infections and unhygienic contact may confer protection from the development of allergic illnesses. The so-called ‘hygiene hypothesis’ has since undergone numerous modifications in the field of epidemiology, clinical science and immunology. Three main areas of research have been brought forward: to explore the role of overt viral and bacterial infections for the inception of allergic diseases; to investigate the significance of environmental exposure to microbial compounds on the development of allergies; and to study the effect of both exposures on underlying innate and adaptive immune responses. A concept unifying these various aspects has not been found, but various pieces of a complex interplay between immune responses of the host, characteristics of the invading microorganism, the level and variety of the environmental exposure and the interactions between an exposed subject's genetic background and the environmental exposures becomes apparent. A natural experiment relating to the hygiene hypothesis is the recurrent observation of a protective effect of growing up on a farm for asthma and allergies. This has been shown in a large number of epidemiological studies across the world among children and adults. The timing and duration of exposure are likely to play a critical role. The largest reduction in risk has been demonstrated for those exposed prenatally and continuously thereafter until adulthood. The protective factors in these farming environments have not been unravelled completely. Findings from various studies suggest that the contact with farm animals, at least in childhood, confers protection. Also the consumption of unprocessed cow's milk directly from the farm has been shown to protect from childhood asthma and allergies. Increased levels of microbial substances may, at least in part, contribute to the ‘farm effect’. However, only few studies have measured microbial exposures in these environments and the results obtained so far suggest that the underlying protective microbial exposure(s) have not been identified, but a number of studies using metagenomic approaches are currently under way. The mechanisms by which such environmental exposures confer protection from respiratory allergies are also not well understood. There is good evidence for the involvement of innate immune responses, but translation into protective mechanisms for asthma and allergies is lacking. Furthermore, a number of gene × environment interactions have been observed.