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Latex sensitization: occupational versus general population prevalence rates.

BACKGROUND: Natural rubber latex (NRL) has become an important occupational health concern in recent years, particularly among health care workers. It has been suggested in some reports that the prevalence of latex sensitization among occupationally exposed groups is not different from that in the general population.

METHODS: The findings of prevalence studies conducted among occupationally-exposed and general population groups were reviewed to determine whether there is evidence to support this suggestion.

RESULTS: Numerous surveys of HCWs have demonstrated that the prevalence of sensitization to latex ranged in most studies from 5 to 12%; sensitization of HCWs may produce clinical effects including urticaria, rhinoconjunctivitis, occupational asthma, and potentially life-threatening anaphylactic shock. More than a decade ago, data from Finland indicated that the prevalence of latex allergy in the general population was less than 1%. Recent reports from Finland have confirmed this, with observations that 0.7-1.1% of large series of patients were NRL-allergic, while among 804 unselected patients, the prevalence of latex skin prick test (SPT) positivity was 0.12%. In contrast, other studies have suggested that from 4 to 6.4% of individuals tested were positive for serum latex-specific IgE antibodies. However, the specificity of these assays has been reported to be low. In three recent studies based on SPTs, published in 1997, the prevalence of positive reactions to latex was about 1% or less. The prevalence was 0.7% (95% CI 0.3-1.4) among 758 apprentices in Quebec, Canada; and 1.1% among more than 3,000 children tested in Finland (1.0% confirmed on latex use test). There were no first- and second-year dental students with positive latex SPTs in Ontario, Canada.

CONCLUSIONS: These recent investigations provide further evidence consistent with earlier studies based on skin testing that the prevalence of latex sensitization in occupationally-unexposed groups is quite low (< 1%). The marked differences in the findings based on serological assays may relate to the nonspecificity of these assays and deserve further investigation.

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