Presence of intestinal helminths decreases T helper type 1 responses in tuberculoid leprosy patients and may increase the risk for multi-bacillary leprosy.
Resistance to intracellular pathogens such as Mycobacterium leprae is dependent upon an effective T helper type 1 (Th1)-type immune response. On the other hand, intestinal helminths are known to subvert the host's immune response towards to either a Th2-type immune response or a regulatory T cell up-regulation, which may affect the host's ability to mount an effective response to mycobacteria. Here, we report a significant association between intestinal helminth infections and lepromatous leprosy [odds ratio (OR), 10.88; confidence interval (CI) 95%: 4.02-29.4; P<0.001]. We also observed that the frequency of intestinal helminths correlated strongly with the mycobacterial index (r=0.982, P<0.01). Corroborating with our hypothesis, intracellular levels of interferon-gamma were decreased significantly in leprosy patients co-infected with intestinal helminths when compared to leprosy patients without worms. Conversely, lepromatous leprosy patients with intestinal worms produced higher levels of both interleukin (IL)-4 and IL-10. Our results suggest that a pre-existing infection by intestinal helminths may facilitate the establishment of M. leprae infection or its progression to more severe forms of leprosy.