Help for the IMMUNE SYSTEM

Feeding pregnant mothers and their newborn children harmless bacteria may dramatically reduce an infant's vulnerability to allergy-based disorders like asthma. "Our new insight might provide an opportunity to devise strategies against allergy, the pandemic that affects almost half the population in more-developed countries," report researchers in the journal Lancet.

The number of allergy-prone people is increasing every year in more developed countries, and medical scientists suggest this rise is due, oddly enough, to improved hygiene. Reducing the amount of exposure someone has to germs early on in life essentially makes that person's immune system too sheltered, so that it responds excessively to harmless stimuli in the form of allergic reactions.

Researchers in Finland tried a new experimental technique called probiotics, which seeks to give young immune systems bacteria they can train on. The investigators randomly gave 159 volunteering pregnant women pills filled with either a placebo or with harmless bacteria normally found in the human gut. The scientists found that among the bacteria-dosed children, the risk of developing the allergy-related skin disease eczema was half that of the other infants. "These figures are remarkable and, if confirmed in other studies and applicable to other allergic diseases, probiotics would represent an important therapeutic advance," notes an editorial in the journal.

Lancet 4/01

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