"When you are dealing
with a child, keep all your wits about you, and sit on the floor." Austin
EAT DIRT AND BE FREE
Meshing nicely with our recent stories about the dangers of overly protecting
our children, comes the following story by David Brown, "Asthma Risk
May Be Cut by Dirt, Study Says", which appeared in the September 19,
2002 issue of the Washington Post (and can be viewed
online at www.washingtonpost.com):
Pigpen, the "Peanuts" cartoon character who spent his childhood in a
swirling cloud of dirt, may have been on to something. A team of European researchers
has discovered that one reason farm children have puzzlingly low rates of asthma
may be their exposure to dirt. In particular, contact with microbes found in the
excrement of pigs, cows and horses seems to have salutary effects on the immune
Children who had relatively large amounts of microbial dust in their bed linens
were only half as likely to be asthmatic as children whose sheets contained little
of the residue. Furthermore, those who had spent their first year of life on a
farm -- which presumably would have given them early contact with the bacterial
substances -- appeared to be especially protected.
The findings are the latest evidence supporting the theory that modern man's obsession
with cleanliness may be leading to a rise in disorders of the immune system, including
asthma. This "hygiene hypothesis" holds that our well-armed and hair-trigger
immunity needs to be turned down and fine-tuned soon after birth. Early exposure
to pathogens and other contaminants may be the best way for that to happen --
and it may not be happening enough in our overly fastidious world.
Previous research had hinted that exposure to bacteria might be playing a role
in the experience of farm children. The new study, which examined the experience
of about 800 Swiss, German and Austrian children, strengthened the observation
and pointed to a particular kind of bacteria.
While the new research has no immediate implications for either medicine or child-rearing,
it raises the possibility one or more "protective exposures" could be
identified and provided to children in the future.
"It's important to narrow down the factors," said Fernando Martinez,
a pediatrician and asthma expert at the University of Arizona who was not involved
in the study, which is published in today's New England Journal of Medicine. "It
could be there's a specific substance we could administer at the right time to
children anywhere that would decrease their risk of developing asthma and allergy."
Both the frequency and severity of childhood asthma have been rising in the last
generation. Today, about 8 percent of American children aged six to 13 are asthmatic,
although prevalence varies widely by race and demographic variable. Twelve percent
to 15 percent of inner-city black children are asthmatic. The rate in farm families
is about half the national average.
Health and safety in early childhood settings is the focus of Dr Susan Aronson's
columns in Child Care Information Exchange. To check out past columns
by "Dr. Sue", go to http://www.ChildCareExchange.com
and review the contents of Exchange back issues in the Exchange Bookstore.