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Worm infection in womb can support later immunity to eczema

Deborah Shipley's picture
Pregnancy and eczema immunity

According to a new study in published in the journal of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology this week, an expectant mother's exposure to a worm infection may protect the newborn from developing eczema.

The study was conducted with a large trial in Uganda, and funded by the Wellcome Trust, to explore the probabilities of the "hygiene hyposthesis"

The "hygiene hypothesis" as defined by Wikipedia states that " a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms (e.g., gut flora or probiotics), and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing natural development of the immune system." The hygiene hypothesis also proposes that exposure to infections in early childhood can modify the immune system and protect the child from allergies later in life.

Harriet Mpairwe, first author of the new study, says: "Worm infections can adversely affect a person's health, but the evidence also suggests that exposure to infection early in a child's life can have a beneficial effect in terms of modifying its immune system and protecting against allergies. We wanted to examine in a large cohort what effect de-worming women during pregnancy has on their offspring."

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The research findings support the hypothesis that maternal worms during pregnancy, infancy, and early breastfeeding may protect against allergy in newborns, and that treatment of these worms during pregnancy can increase the risk of allergy.

"Our study suggests that routine de-worming during pregnancy, in settings where most worm infections are mild, may not be beneficial for the children and may actually cause problems with allergy," says the senior author of the study Professor Alison Elliott from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, "however, before we recommend changes to treatment policy, we need to do more work to confirm these findings and better understand what is happening."

The study also concludes that there is more research that needs to be done in this area, particularly in relation to the long term effects on allergies as the children reach school age.

This research comes in time for the Wellcome Trust's major exhibit opening on March 24 of this year called Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life. This exhibit explores our ambivalent relationship to dirt and hygiene across the centuries. For more information on the exhibit visit the Welcome Collection.