Primary lactase deficiency and past malarial endemicity in Sardinia

T. Meloni, C. Colombo, G. Ruggiu, M. Dessena, G. F. Meloni

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Background. It has recently been suggested that primary lactase deficiency might have been selected for by malaria as occurred for β-thalassaemia and glucose 6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency. However, recently we have found that the prevalence of primary lactase deficiency in the area of Sassari (Northern Sardinia), where, in the past, there was intermediate malarial endemicity, is comparable to that observed in the adult population from other areas of Southern Italy where malaria was less endemic. Aims. To address the problem further, we have determined the prevalence of primary lactase deficiency, glucose 6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency deficiency and β-thalassaemia trait in the population of three Sardinian villages which differ in altitude above sea-level, socioeconomic features, history of endemic malaria and prevalence of b-thalassaemia and glucose 6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency. Subjects. We tested 138 adult males: 53 were from Fonni (a non-malarial mountain village, with a strong pastoral tradition), 38 from Lode (a village with a similar pastoral tradition, but high malarial endemicity in the past) and 47 from Terralba (a lowland fishing village with an agricultural tradition and heavy malarial morbidity and mortality). Methods. A blood sample was obtained in all subjects for determination of HbA2 and glucose 6-phosphate dehydrogenase activity. Lactase deficiency was assessed by measuring breath hydrogen production after oral administration of lactose (50 g), by gas-chromatography. Results. The frequencies of glucose 6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency and of β-thalassaemia trait in the non-malarial village of Fonni were strikingly low, compared to frequencies found in the two villages (Terralba and Lode) with a very high past malarial morbidity. In contrast, there was no significant difference in the prevalence of lactase deficiency in the three groups of subjects from the three villages. Conclusions. These data obtained in Northern Sardinia do not support the hypothesis of a selection of primary lactase deficiency by malaria. For definitive conclusions, however, the malaria hypothesis should be tested in other parts of the world.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)490-493
Number of pages4
JournalItalian Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1998


  • Malaria
  • Primary lactase deficiency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Gastroenterology


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