Helicobacter pylori can be regarded as a model pathogen for studying persistent colonization of humans. Phase-variable expression of Lewis blood-group antigens by H. pylori allows this microorganism to modulate the host T-helper-1-cell versus T-helper-2-cell response. We describe a model in which interactions between host lectins and pathogen carbohydrates facilitate asymptomatic persistence of H. pylori. This delicate balance, favourable for both the pathogen and the host, could lead to gastric autoimmunity in genetically susceptible individuals.