Pigpen, the "Peanuts" cartoon character who spent his childhood in a swirling cloud of dirt, may have been on to something.
A team 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 effect on the immune system.
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'd 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.
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.
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