In similarity to many other western countries, the burden of allergic diseases in Finland is high. Studies worldwide have shown that an environment rich in microbes in early life reduces the subsequent risk of developing allergic diseases. Along with urbanization, such exposure has dramatically reduced, both in terms of diversity and quantity. Continuous stimulation of the immune system by environmental saprophytes via the skin, respiratory tract and gut appears to be necessary for activation of the regulatory network including regulatory T-cells and dendritic cells.
Substantial evidence now shows that the balance between allergy and tolerance is dependent on regulatory T-cells. Tolerance induced by allergen-specific regulatory T-cells appears to be the normal immunological response to allergens in non atopic healthy individuals. Healthy subjects have an intact functional allergen-specific regulatory T-cell response, which in allergic subjects is impaired. Evidence on this exists with respect to atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, allergic rhinitis and asthma. Restoration of impaired allergen-specific regulatory T-cell response and tolerance induction has furthermore been demonstrated during allergen-specific subcutaneous and sublingual immunotherapy and is crucial for good therapeutic outcome. However, tolerance can also be strengthened unspecifically by simple means, e.g. by consuming farm milk and spending time in nature.
Results so far obtained from animal models indicate that it is possible to restore tolerance by administering the allergen in certain circumstances both locally and systemically. It has become increasingly clear that continuous exposure to microbial antigens as well as allergens in foodstuffs and the environment is decisive, and excessive antigen avoidance can be harmful and weaken or even prevent the development of regulatory mechanisms.
Success in the Finnish Asthma Programme was an encouraging example of how it is possible to reduce both the costs and morbidity of asthma. The time, in the wake of the Asthma Programme, is now opportune for a national allergy programme, particularly as in the past few years, fundamentally more essential data on tolerance and its mechanisms have been published. In this review, the scientific rationale for the Finnish Allergy Programme 2008–2018 is outlined. The focus is on tolerance and how to endorse tolerance at the population level.