Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Can Dirt Do a Little Good?

Infants are enchanting all over the world, as the new movie "Babies" shows. But their standards of hygiene sure vary.

The film captures the first year of life for four diverse babies. In a nomadic family in Namibia, Ponijao drinks from muddy streams, chews on dry bones and uses her many siblings' body parts as toys.

On a small family farm in Mongolia, a rooster struts around little Bayar's bed, a goat drinks from his bathwater and livestock serve as babysitters.

Aside from some really adorable footage, the movie "Babies" starkly illustrates the differences in hygiene standards around the world. WSJ's Melinda Beck says the documentary also raises the question whether its possible to be "too clean."

By contrast, Mari, growing up in high-rise, high-tech Tokyo, and Hattie, whose doting parents live a "green" lifestyle in San Francisco, both have modern conveniences and sanitation.

Statistically, Mari and Hattie are healthier. Some 42 out of 1,000 children in Namibia, and 41 out of 1,000 in Mongolia die before their 5th birthday; compared with only 8 in 1,000 in the U.S. and only 4 in Japan.

Yet the upscale urban infants are at higher risk for some health problems—including allergies, asthma and autoimmune diseases like Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel disease—than the babies in the rural developing world.
Allergies and autoimmune diseases were virtually unknown in the U.S. before the turn of the last century, but they began to emerge as modern sanitation, decontaminated water, food refrigeration and antibiotics became more widespread. "There's a whole series of diseases that just emerged in the 20th century," says Dr. Weinsto.
Some scientists are searching for ways to harness the immune-priming effects of microorganisms without the fatal diseases. Parasitic worms known as helminthes are leading the way.
Clinical trials are under way in the U.S. and Europe testing Trichuris Suis Ova (TSO)—-a species of pig whipworm—as a treatment for peanut allergies, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease and MS. A study is being designed to test it with asthma. It's also being tested with adults who have autism, which some researchers believe could be related to immunological function.

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