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Doctors’ orders: Developing an immunity at an early age

December 2, 2018

This morning during one of my more lucid Sunday moments, in a church meeting with a speaker who seemed to go on forever, I watched a baby crawl around on the carpet, eating what all church-going children eat — Cheerios and Froot Loops.

Of course, being the incessant germaphobe that I am, all I could think of were the millions of carpet mites and everything else this poor child was being exposed to. What horrid bacteria and disease-causing organisms must be lurking in the fibers of the carpet? I mean, just think of what is on the bottom of all of those shoes.

Then, I remembered several theories, as well as studies, that indicate that in the long run being exposed to germs at a young age may actually act as a protectant to a variety of conditions later in life.

The hygiene hypothesis was first introduced in the late 1980s by Dr. David P. Strachan, a professor of epidemiology. His article, published in the British Medical Journal, claimed that children in larger households had fewer instances of hay fever because they are exposed to germs by older siblings. This observational study led to further research that suggested a lack of early exposure to less-than-pristine conditions can increase the individual’s susceptibility to disease. Put another way, it may be possible to be too clean.

In the late 1990s, Dr. Erika von Mutius, a health researcher, compared the rates of allergies and asthma in East vs. West German children. Her assumption was that East German children who grew up in dirtier and less healthful conditions, would have more allergies and suffer more asthma than their Western counterparts. However, her research found just the opposite to be true. Children in polluted areas of East Germany had lower allergic reactions and less asthma than those in the west. Further research found that children in developing areas of the world are less likely to develop allergies and asthma compared to children in the developed world.

The idea appears to be simple if you ascribe to the idea. Developing a strong immune system requires being exposed to germs, kind of like the training of a body builder. To develop muscle strength, progressive weight training is required. In order to resist infections, the immune system must be trained by multiple exposures to do so.

Dr. Mutius hypothesized that the reason children who are not exposed to germs and bacteria are sicklier is due to how the human immune system evolved. She thinks there are two types of biological defenses. If one defense system isn’t trained or practiced enough to fight off illness, the other system overcompensates and creates an allergic reaction to harmless substances such as pollen.

A conflict between cleanliness and exposure can leave parents feeling conflicted. There are many microbes that can make children very sick.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends regularly cleaning and disinfecting surfaces in the home, especially surfaces that have contaminated by fecal matter or meat or contaminated by those known to be sick. The CDC also strongly recommends that children be allowed to play in a variety of environments and to get dirty.

The balance between cleanliness and exposure is a hard call according to Harvard Medical School researchers. They also put forth yet another idea that the foods we eat may also make a difference.

Dr. Niket Sonpal, an assistant professor at the University Of Touro College Of Osteopathic Medicine, may have summed it up best when he said, “I was born in India but moved to the U.S. and went to college in Virginia and medical school in Europe. I am sure that the vast change in environments has played a role in my immunity. How has it? I don’t think we know just yet.”

So while it may be painful for me to witness, I guess at least according to some health experts, letting the baby eat cereal off the floor in church may not cause disease and in the long run actually make them healthier. I guess I am totally conflicted with this idea, as I am with so many other things in life.

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