The Swiss Society for Allergology and Immunology (SSAI) is unique in that it brings together in one single organisation basic scientists and clinicians working in hospitals or in private practice. It is the specific aim of the SSAI to encourage close interactions between these different groups, which although sometimes challenging is often rewarding. The SSAI is also actively involved in different aspects of national health politics providing support and help in formulating regulations governing practical aspects of the work of physicians specialising in Allergy and Immunology. The society also organizes an annual congress, a research meeting for PhD students, continuous medical education courses as well as the specialist examination. In addition, the SSAI provides fellowships to encourage young colleagues to attend international meetings and present their research.
A Swiss Society for Allergy was initially created in 1950 by a group of well-known physicians from different medical fields (internal medicine: Wilhelm Löffler, Werner Hadorn; microbiology: Arthur Grumbach; dermatology: Guido Miescher, Werner Jadassohn; and further representatives of pneumology and internal medicine) whose interest in allergy at that time was more a hobby than a profession. Already in its first year, the Society had over 150 members and organised the First International Congress of Allergology (1951, Zurich), at which the International Association for Allergology (later expanded to include Clinical Immunology: IAACI) was established.
During the 1950ies, allergy outpatient clinics were established at all Swiss University Hospitals, first in Zurich (Hans Storck, Brunello Wüthrich and Peter Grob), and then followed by Basel (Rudolf Schuppli, Ferdinand Wortmann), Bern (Alain de Weck), Lausanne (Philippe Frei) and Geneva (Jean-Pierre Girard). In the early 1960ies, immunology was increasingly emerging as a new medical and scientific discipline, breaking old ties with microbiology and seeking independent recognition. Consequently, a number of self-appointed “immunologists” from different scientific backgrounds including Henri Isliker (Biochemistry), Ernst Sorkin (Microbiology), Alfred Hässig (Blood transfusion) and Alain de Weck (Dermatology) wanted to create an independent immunological society, as has been the case in most other European countries. Instead, it was finally decided to combine the disciplines of Allergy and Immunology within a single society. The Swiss Society of Allergy had hitherto primarily been concerned with clinical aspects of allergology. The creation of the SSAI had now brought together basic scientists and clinicians from both fields and this structure has subsequently proved to be especially beneficial.
In the early 1970ies, the growing interest in the field of immunology lead to the creation of several new institutions dedicated to research and clinical practice. These included the Institute of Clinical Immunology at the University of Berne (Alain de Weck), as well as immunology Units and Divisions at other universities (Zurich: Jean Lindenmann, Rolf Zinkernagel, Peter Grob; Lausanne, Philippe Frei; Geneva: André Cruchaud, Jean-Michel Dayer). In addition, several immunological institutions independent of Universities emerged, most notably the Basel Institute of Immunology (Niels Jerne, Fritz Melchers), a Lausannebased Ludwig Institute (Jean-Charles Cerottini), the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (Henri Isliker) and the Swiss Institute for Asthma and Allergy Research (Ernst Sorkin, Kurt Blaser). All these institutions, with the sad exception of the Basel Institute of Immunology, remain active and successful in research to the present time. They have, most recently been joined by the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (Antonio Lanzavecchia), which was established in the year 2000 in Bellinzona. The important contributions made by these institutions have led to international recognition of Switzerland’s important role in the field of Allergy and Immunology.
In 1970, Interlaken became the site where the International Union of Immunological Societies was established following the initiatives of primarily Bernard Cinader and John Humphrey. Subsequently, members of SSAI became actively involved in several international bodies dedicated to Allergy and Immunology. For example Alain de Weck had held successive presidencies at the IUIS and the IAACI and the 13th International Congress of Allergology and Clinical Immunology was held in Montreux in 1988 and in 1991 Brunello Wüthrich organized the annual meeting of the European Academy of Allergology and Clinical Immunology under the auspices of SSAI.
On a national level, the SSAI devoted itself during the 1970es and 1980es to the establishment of basic and clinical immunology teaching at all Swiss medical and science faculties and fought to have immunology recognized as an independent scientific discipline. Moreover, the SSAI was instrumental in achieving the recognition of allergy and clinical immunology as a medical specialty by the main Swiss medical organization (FMH) and federal public health authorities. Although initially a subspeciality of internal medicine, dermatology, pediatrics or otorhinolaryngology, allergy and clinical immunology does now hold the status of a fully independent medical specialty.
At a time where most institutes and hospital units in allergy and immunology have a tendency to multiply and operate independently from each other, the role of the SSAI as a common meeting ground seems ever more appropriate.
The steering committee of SSAI is composed of representatives of basic and clinical sciences and of practitioners. The two latter represent the speciality commission in charge of pre- and post-graduate programs, practical aspects of physicians in private practice, laboratory tests, medical regulations, and national professional politics. Due to her investment, Dominique Olgiati-Des Gouttes, was the first private practitioner who became president of the speciality commission during 2005-2006 and she was part of the committee of SSAI.
he annual scientific meeting of the SSAI brings together clinical, translational and basic science in Allergy and Immunology and provides an important forum for practitioners. Because of the society's relatively small size (presently approximately 500 members), these meetings are combined with those of other Swiss societies linked to allergy and immunology, such as those representing the disciplines of dermatology, pneumology or infectious diseases. This approach has resulted in a number of stimulating annual meetings focused on topics that are of key interest to the participating societies. The invited speakers are chosen among international experts and, for example, in the most recent meeting in Basel (held in conjunction with the Swiss Society for Dermatology) have included D. Kioussis, UK; D. Jayne, UK; A. Strasser, Australia; M.J. Lenardo, USA; F. Dazzi, UK; P. Muraro, UK; P.A. Kolle, Germany; R. Happle, Germany; M. Pirmohamed, UK; H. Waldmann, UK; B. Rochat, France; D. Nemazee, USA; B. Stockinger, UK; M. Feldmann, UK, K. Smith, UK; H. Peter, Germany; D. Lipsker, France; C.Rooney, USA; P. Comoli, Italy or P. Friedl, Germany. Next year's meeting, which will be held together with the society for Pneumology (Fribourg, April 17-18, 2008), will focus on novel molecular mechanisms of innate and adaptive immunity, autoimmunity, parasite and tumour vaccines and clinical aspects of inflammatory lung diseases.
The SSAI also supports an annual, 2-day conference for medical specialists in Allergology and Clinical Immunology. Organized by Werner J Pichler in collaboration with one of the 5 Swiss universities and relying on considerable input by practicing allergologists and clinical immunologists, this meeting is exclusively open for SSAI members in clinical practice and in training. National and international speakers provide insights into and up-dates on particular areas relevant to allergologists and clinical immunologists. In 2007, the topics included immunodeficiency diseases, current concepts in the pathophysiology and treatment of asthma, the interplay between allergy and parasites, and the use of biologicals in autoimmune diseases. In addition workshops are offered to provide interactive training opportunities and a forum for discussions and exchange of expertise. This meeting has proven to be an extremely popular event in the postgraduate continuous education of clinicians, which is reflected by the fact that over 75 % off practicing allergologists and clinical immunologists in Switzerland usually participate.
Finally, SSAI also co-sponsors an annual meeting organized by Hans Hengartner, especially set up for immunology/allergy graduate students working in Swiss institutions. During it’s three days, the students have an opportunity to present their thesis topic and the results obtained to their peers and to a small number of experienced immunologists acting as supervisors. This meeting provides invaluable experience in preparing for presentations for international meetings.
As a rule, a new president of SSAI is elected every two years by the general assembly. However, to assure continuity over longer periods, the future president elected and the past president are also part of the committee.
The society wishes to extend its role as a platform for communication between scientists and clinicians thereby helping to improve the quality of immunology and allergy at all levels. Moreover, it hopes to create a new foundation dedicated to fund research, provide fellowships to young scientists and physicians to go abroad and to support the education of physicians from disadvantaged countries.