Poland's entry into the EU may have had the surprising consequence of increasing allergies in rural villages, according to a new study. Surveys show that the prevalence of atopy, a predisposition towards allergic reactions, jumped from seven per cent to 20 per cent in villages in southwest Poland between 2003 and 2012.
Scientists believe the rise is linked to changes in farming practices that occurred when Poland adopted of the EU Common Agricultural Policy. In 2003, many villagers kept cows or pigs on their land, but after joining the EU it became uneconomical to do so.
Exposure to farm animals, especially at a young age, is thought to protect against developing allergies. The findings add to evidence that westernised lifestyles increase the risk of allergic diseases.
Previous research has suggested that farm dwellers, especially children who grow up on farms, have lower rates of hayfever and atopy than people living in towns.
Study author Professor Paul Cullinan, from the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London, said: "Asthma, hayfever, and other allergic diseases are becoming more common in many countries and there's growing evidence that they're linked to modern, clean lifestyles.
"We found that rapid changes in farming practices after Poland joined the EU were accompanied by a sharp increase in allergies over a very short period of time. It's likely that similar changes are occurring in other places in Europe, and we can expect that elsewhere in the world, we may see major increases in allergies, asthma and hayfever over the coming decades as countries become more westernised and less rural."