OBJECTIVES: The objective of this study was to evaluate the effects of allergen sensitization and family history of atopy on asthma and allergic disease in Chinese schoolchildren from three southeast Asian populations.
METHODS: Written questionnaires on respiratory and allergic symptoms were completed by parents of children of secondary-school age (age range 12 to 18 years) in Hong Kong (n = 1062), Kota Kinabalu in eastern Malaysia (n = 409), and San Bu in southern China (n = 737). A subsample of school-children underwent skin prick testing to common inhalant allergens (Hong Kong 471 children, Kota Kinabalu 321, San Bu 647).
RESULTS: The prevalence of asthma and allergic disease in schoolchildren was highest in Hong Kong, intermediate in Kota Kinabalu, and lowest in San Bu. However, the overall rate of atopic sensitization was similar in the three populations (49% to 63%). House dust mite and cockroach were the two most common allergens causing sensitization and these gave rise to more than 95% of the positive skin test results in all three populations. By regression analysis, mite allergy was associated with rhinitis and asthma in all three populations, and a family history of asthma, rhinitis, or eczema was strongly associated with respective symptoms in the subjects. After adjusting for age, sex, atopic status, and family history of allergic disease, the place of residence remained a significant independent factor for asthma (odds ratio [OR] = 1.0 for Hong Kong, 0.57 for Kota Kinabalu, 0.15 for San Bu, p < 0.001), rhinitis (OR = 1.0 for Hong Kong, 0.59 for Kota Kinabalu, 0.15 for San Bu, p < 0.001), or eczema (OR = 1.0 for Hong Kong, 0.35 for Kota Kinabalu, 1.01 for San Bu, p < 0.001).
CONCLUSION: Sensitization to indoor allergens was a significant risk factor for asthma and allergic disease, and familial clustering of disease was common in the region. However, the marked difference in disease prevalence in the three southeast Asian populations of Chinese schoolchildren cannot be explained by atopic sensitization and family history alone, and the place of residence was an independent risk factor for asthma and allergies, which suggests an important environmental role in disease pathogenesis.