More and more children in Europe are being diagnosed with asthma. But not all youngsters are equally at risk. Curiously, a new epidemiological study just published in The New England Journal of Medicine shows that children living on farms are significantly less likely to develop asthma than other kids.
What’s the explanation? The international team of scientists that conducted the study concluded that the lower susceptibility of farm children to asthma can largely be explained by the fact they grow up surrounded by a greater variety of microorganisms than kids who don’t live in an agricultural setting.
Bottom line: The research team, which included Dr. Markus Ege and Professor Erika von Mutius of Children’s Surgical Clinic in the Dr. von Hauner Children’s Hospital (Medical Center of the University of Munich), found that exposure to bacteria and fungi can offer protection against asthma.
Although the authors of the new study didn’t delve into the idea, their findings sound much like the so-called “hygiene theory” or “hygiene hypothesis” that many natural health researchers have promoted for decades. Simply put, according to this theory, exposure to viruses, bacteria and fungi in early life (and the endotoxins those pathogens produce) helps the immune system develop and become strong.
For the new study, the scientists worked with a group of Bavarian school children, comparing those living on farms with others from the same rural districts who had little direct contact with farms. Analyses of dust from the kids’ bedrooms showed that the farm children were exposed to a much broader range of microorganisms than children who lived in other types of environments. And, it turned out, being around more bacteria and fungi seemed to protect health, not harm it — the more diverse the microbial population in a child’s environment, the lower the risk of that youngster having asthma.
Exactly how the exposure to microorganisms could prevent asthma remains unclear. “One possibility is that a particular combination of microbial species stimulates the innate immune system and so prevents it from entering a state that promotes the development of asthma,” Dr. Ege said in a statement to the media.
Another possibility discussed by the researchers is that continuous exposure to many different microorganisms makes it more difficult for an asthma-inducing microorganism to become dominant in the lower respiratory tract — much in the same way a balanced population of “good” bacteria in the intestinal tract keeps the overgrowth of health-disrupting bacteria and yeast in check.
Instead of simply concluding that natural exposure to a variety of microorganisms may be healthier for children than living in modern homes that could actually be too clean for optimum health, the scientists are using their findings to create a Big Pharma product. They’ve announced they hope to develop a live vaccine against asthma based on microorganisms found in household dust.
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