• asthma;
  • atopy;
  • farming;
  • Poland rural

Background:  We hypothesized that, in south-west Poland, a ‘rural’ protective effect on atopy and respiratory allergies would be most pronounced among children but that at all ages would be stronger among those with a rural background.

Methods:  A cross-sectional survey of the inhabitants (age >5 years, n = 1657) of Sobotka, a town of 4000 people in south-west Poland: and seven neighbouring villages. We measured and analysed responses to skin prick tests (atopy) and to a standard questionnaire (asthma and hayfever).

Results:  Atopy was very uncommon (7%) among villagers at all ages but not among townspeople (20%, P < 0.001); the differences were most marked among those aged under 40 years. Asthma and hayfever were similarly distributed, both being very rare among villagers. The differences appear to be explained by the cohort effect of a communal move away from rural life. This interpretation is supported by an ecological correlation (ρ = −0.59) between rural populations and childhood wheeze in 22 European countries.

Conclusion:  The very striking differences in the prevalence of allergy between these two neighbouring communities of central Europe reflect the pan-continental population movements that may have been responsible for the emergence of childhood allergies in Europe.