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Massey Magazine Issue 13 November 2002

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Cuddling cows may combat asthma

Children growing up in contact with farm animals in rural areas are more likely to be protected against allergic asthma than their city cousins.

Research around the world has suggested exposure to animals may play a key role in protecting children against atopic, or allergic, asthma, which accounts for about half of New Zealand asthma sufferers. Dr Jeroen Douwes, from the Centre for Public Health Research, is leading a research project to uncover whether the same can be said for New Zealand children and what might be behind the findings.

“It appears that there is something in the lifestyles of farming families that is protecting them from getting allergic asthma. This is something positive for the rural community. If we can identify what factors are creating the protective effect then hopefully we will be able to develop tools that can help protect others.

“If there is an association between life on a farm and low levels of allergic asthma in New Zealand then we can compare the results with the European work. We might then be able to exclude a number of possible causes that are different from Europe and identify what it is that might help prevent allergic asthma.”

Surveys have been sent to 3000 randomly selected dairying, sheep and beef and cropping farming families throughout New Zealand, asking questions about their lifestyles, farm practices and health history. Surveys have also been sent to a control group of 1000 families with low exposure to farming. Unfortunately, to date the response has been less than anticipated and Dr Douwes now has a team ringing the recipients to complete the surveys over the phone. He says he realises farmers are often busy and finding time to fill in a survey may not be of highest priority, but he stresses that what they might uncover in the research could be extremely beneficial to asthma sufferers.

He says research in other countries suggests that children raised on livestock farms are more likely to be protected from allergic asthma than those from cropping farms. It also appears there is a protective effect on adults, although to date this has not been studied extensively. Growing up in a rural area alone is not enough. To benefit from the protective effect children must come into contact with livestock.

Dr Douwes says the protective effect appears to come from an immune-like response to micro-organisms, and particularly to bacterial endotoxins. He says there is also a hypothesis that drinking unpasturised milk and being exposed to lactobacilli changes the gut flora, again leading to a higher level of protection against allergic diseases. He says reduced exposure to these and other micro-organisms may explain the increasing prevalence of allergic asthma in western countries.

“In farming homes, where the family is in contact with livestock, bacterial endotoxin levels are significantly higher than in non-farming homes. In a healthy person exposure to endotoxins may induce non-allergic symptoms but protect against allergic symptoms. The challenge is to find a balance between the two.”

Dr Douwes says phase two of the project is to take skin prick tests from 600 families to assess their allergic immune responses. They will also gather dust from the families’ homes, which will be analysed for endotoxin levels, and assess a connection between the two.

 

 
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