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Massey Magazine Issue 13 November 2002

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Increase in asthma could be linked to loss of rural lifestyle

Less exposure to a rural lifestyle could be one of the reasons why the prevalence of asthma is rising throughout the world and in New Zealand.

According to an international report into asthma prevalence for the World Health Organisation and the Global Initiative for Asthma released today to coincide with World Asthma Day, New Zealanders suffer asthma at three times the global rate. The report says about 5 percent of the global population suffer from asthma while the rate among New Zealanders is 15 percent.

The report says the prevalence of the disease is rising - particularly where populations are urbanising and adopting Western lifestyles - but the basic reasons remain unclear.

Dr Jeroen Douwes, from Massey University’s Centre for Public Health Research, says

research around the world suggests 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. He is currently leading a research project to uncover whether the same can be said for New Zealand children and what might be behind the findings.

“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.”

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. Dr Douwes says the protective effect appears to come from an immune-like response to micro-organisms, particularly bacterial endotoxin. 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 is also leading another research project investigating whether exposure to endotoxins later in life can result in a protective affect in adults, or even reverse pre-existing allergies.


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