Saturday science subject: Bacteria and allergies

Are allergies a result of our overly clean lifestyles? That question has been debated for some time now, but according to the New Scientist, a new study strongly suggests the answer is "yes."

This new study is the work of a team of researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland, who selected 1223 pregnant women likely to give birth to children with allergies (either because they or their partners had allergies themselves). The researchers gave the women either probiotics or placebos, and in the end, 925 infants continued the same treatment.

At three, six, and 24 months, paediatricians examined the children without knowing whether they were probiotic- or placebo-treated babies, and recorded any diagnosis of allergy. In 98 randomly selected infants at six months, blood samples were also collected.

Marschan and colleagues found that levels of key proteins associated with tissue inflammation were 50% higher on average in the blood of probiotic-treated infants than in the blood of placebo-treated infants. Inflammation is thought to stimulate the immune system, and so reduce allergic reaction.

Probiotic children were also 30% less likely than their untreated counterparts to develop an itchy skin condition known as atopic eczema, which is often an early manifestation of allergies.

Errki Savilahti, one of the authors of the study, concluded, "It seems clear that we need to stimulate the infant's immune system as early and as vigorously as is safe, for inflammation seems to go hand in hand with allergy prevention." The New Scientist also says the study adds weight to the idea that allergies have flourished because of the "deficit of bacteria in modern living."

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