Thanks to advancements in medicine, plumbing and commercial agriculture, most people in Western cultures avoid many childhood infections that were once very common. This shift towards a hyper-clean living has lead to big financial windfalls for companies than make antibacterial soaps and cleansers, but is it also responsible for the growing number of asthma cases in the US? Given current data it’s impossible to say for sure, but according to the hygiene hypothesis, which may explain the unintended consequence of protecting people against microbes, the two have been correlated in studies.
Dale Umetsu, MD, PhD, of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Allergy Program and Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, is the senior author of a new study that looks at how the hygiene hypothesis might affect the development of young children’s immune systems. According to his research, which was done on mice, infections that develop in children while they are young might shape their immune systems in a way that protects them from developing allergic asthma. But because most children in this country live in a more sterile environment than previous generations, with little exposure to bacteria from soil or farm animals, more and more kids are never infected. As result many have developed altered immune systems that seem to make them more prone to asthma.
It’s fascinating work, and could be very good news for the 1 in 10 people who currently suffer from asthma. The more that is known about asthma’s causes, the more likely it is that science will be able to develop a cure. For more information on Umetsu’s work, as well as it’s implications for the general public, please read the full story on Vector, Children’s science and innovation blog.