Children and their illnesses
BUSINESS ECONOMICS|August 16-31, 2019

I meet so many mothers who won’t let their children walk barefoot in the house or the park, won’t let them touch snails, won’t let them grasp mud or go out in the hot rain of the monsoon, won’t let them near any animals and refuse to keep a pet because it might bring in bacteria.

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

Their children wear socks throughout the year, have no idea what a plant is, apart from the cut flowers they see in vases at home.

And they are sicker than most children.

For decades, paediatricians warned mothers that if they wanted their children allergy free, they should keep animals out of the house.

By the early 2000s, a number of studies showed the opposite - that exposure to pets in the very early stages of life confers protective benefits and prevents the development of allergic rhinitis, asthma and eczema. Of the nine studies analysed in 2011, six detected lower levels of IgE antibodies and 15 to 21% less eczema in children who had been exposed to cats or dogs as soon they were born.

Allergies have been on the rise since the 20th century. Even in a country where nutrition levels are higher, like the USA, 8-10% of children have asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asthma is a chronic lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. It causes recurring bouts of wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing. Conventional wisdom says that reducing allergenic substances at home will help lessen asthma symptoms.

However, the Urban Environment and Childhood Asthma (URECA) study, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), points in the opposite direction : that exposure to certain allergens and bacteria early in life, before asthma develops, may protect children from asthma. Since 2005, URECA has tracked newborns who are at high risk for developing asthma, because at least one parent has asthma or allergies, for 7 years. Their findings were published in 2017, in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Of the 442 children, 130 (29%) had asthma at age 7. The children who didn’t have it, strangely enough, had higher levels of cockroach, mouse, and cat/dog bacteria in the dust samples, collected from the children’s homes, during the first 3 years of life starting at 3 months.

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