Is your kid too clean?

Edmonton Sun - - LIFE - Dr. gif­ford JONES

Ma­hatma Gandhi, the leader of In­dia’s in­de­pen­dence move­ment, pop­u­lar­ized the ex­pres­sion, “clean­li­ness is next to god­li­ness.” Any doc­tor would agree that clean­li­ness is on the path­way to health nir­vana. But are we go­ing too far in keep­ing young chil­dren iso­lated from com­mon germs? Are some par­ents do­ing a dis­ser­vice to their young­sters by keep­ing them too clean?

For decades, im­mu­nol­o­gist have been study­ing whether ex­pos­ing young chil­dren to a lit­tle dirt might strengthen the abil­ity of their im­mune sys­tems to fight in­fec­tion later in life.

Re­search by Sir Mel Greaves, professor of cell bi­ol­ogy at the In­sti­tute of Cancer Re­search in Lon­don, shows that chil­dren raised in cleaner en­vi­ron­ments are more likely to have weak­ened im­mune sys­tems.

But ex­perts are con­cerned an ab­sence of ex­po­sure to com­mon in­fec­tions early in life may even be re­spon­si­ble for some chil­dren de­vel­op­ing acute lym­phoblas­tic leukemia (ALL). ALL is the most com­mon cancer in chil­dren four years and un­der, and its global rates are in­creas­ing. This ma­lig­nancy af­fects white blood cells in the blood stream and bone mar­row and can quickly spread to other or­gans. The treat­ment is che­mother­apy, ra­di­a­tion or the use of stem cells.

But Greaves, who was knighted for his re­search, says some cases may be pre­ventable.

Greaves says some chil­dren may be ge­net­i­cally pre­dis­posed to ALL. But he adds, only 1% of these chil­dren de­velop this dis­ease and that the dis­ease is more prom­i­nent in af­flu­ent so­ci­eties. So Greaves sug­gests an en­vi­ron­men­tal rea­son may be the cause. Greaves be­lieves ALL is linked to child­hood in­fec­tion. He says that, for most chil­dren, their im­mune sys­tems are able to han­dle in­fec­tious at­tacks. But for those chil­dren with a weak­ened im­mune sys­tem these in­fec­tions can trig­ger leukemia.

This sug­gests that it is im­por­tant in the first years of life for the im­mune sys­tem to be primed for in­fec­tions it can han­dle.

Chil­dren need to build their de­fense sys­tem while they are young against com­mon germs that won’t harm them. If they don’t, their im­mune sys­tems may be over­whelmed later on by at­tacks that cause more se­vere con­se­quences.

Many read­ers may share my skep­ti­cism that dirt can be good for us. Af­ter all, I have Gandhi and god­li­ness on my side. But per­haps we should think of child­hood as the prov­ing grounds to pre­pare for bat­tles to come later in life. It’s log­i­cal that our im­mune sys­tem re­quires time to de­velop an ef­fec­tive de­fense. Mod­ern medicine seems to have for­got­ten the power of natural im­mu­nity. And we now know that nearly 80% of the im­mune sys­tem is in our gut and we re­quire healthy bac­te­ria to sup­port im­mu­nity.

Greaves says that there are many causes for a weak­ened im­mune sys­tem. To­day, we re­ceive heavy toxic loads from agri­cul­ture, chem­i­cals, ra­di­a­tion, and pol­lu­tion, which can all cre­ate in­flam­ma­tion.

We also know some par­ents are ex­ces­sively pro­tec­tive, safe­guard­ing their chil­dren from ev­ery source of germs. Their chil­dren are in what Greaves calls a “Lysol Prison.” Greaves be­lieves that chronic in­flam­ma­tion is the root cause of many dis­eases. It’s not a new idea, as re­searchers have linked heart at­tack to un­der­ly­ing in­flam­ma­tion.

His re­search is now ex­plor­ing ways to pre­vent child­hood cancer. He is an­a­lyz­ing bac­te­ria, viruses and other or­gan­isms in the gut to help prime the im­mune sys­tem. The hope is to pro­duce a cock­tail of mi­crobes that can be given to chil­dren as a yogurt-like drink.

I hope it’s suc­cess­ful. One of the most de­press­ing sights I’ve ever wit­nessed oc­curred at the Great Or­mond St. Hos­pi­tal, in Lon­don, where I saw young chil­dren dy­ing of cancer. Greaves also at­tributes his de­ci­sion to study leukemia to his own visit there.

So keep chil­dren clean, but don’t be ob­ses­sive. The best de­fense against in­fec­tion is a strong im­mune sys­tem.

Sign up online at For com­ments, [email protected] EDI­TOR’S NOTE: The col­umn does not con­sti­tute med­i­cal ad­vice and is not meant to di­ag­nose, treat, pre­vent or cure dis­ease. Please con­tact your doc­tor. The in­for­ma­tion pro­vided is for in­for­ma­tional pur­poses only and are the views solely of the au­thor.

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