The hygiene hypothesis, formulated to explain the increased incidence of allergic and autoimmune diseases observed in industrialized countries, remains controversial. We reflected upon this hypothesis during a medical mission to rural and impoverished villages of central Peru.
Materials and methods
The mission was carried out in July 2015 to aid three Andean villages located near Cusco, and comprised 10 American physicians, 4 nurses, and 24 students. After recording the vital signs, patients were triaged by nurses based on the major complaint, visited by physicians, and prescribed medications. Physicians wrote their notes on a one-page form and established diagnoses purely on clinical grounds, without laboratory or imaging testing. Physician notes were then analyzed retrospectively in a de-identified and double-blinded fashion.
A total of 1075 patients (357 men and 718 women) were visited during 5 consecutive clinic days, 840 being adults and 235 <18 years of age. The most common complaints were back pain, stomach pain, headache, and vision loss. Osteoarthritis, gastritis, visual disturbances, and parasitic infections dominated the diagnostic categories. Thirty-seven patients (3 %) were diagnosed with an allergic or autoimmune disease, mainly represented by asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, a prevalence that was not significantly lower than that reported in industrialized countries.
Although a study of this nature cannot definitively support or refute the hygiene hypothesis, it does provide a novel snapshot of disease prevalence in rural Andean villages of central Peru. The study could serve as a basis to implement basic public health interventions and prepare for future missions to the same or comparable regions.