Antibiotics fueling rise in childhood asthma

childhood asthma

Antibiotics may increase the risk of children suffering from debilitating asthma.

Experts say widely-used antibiotics disrupt intestinal bacteria, which in turn damages youngsters’ immune systems and raises their risk of developing allergic asthma. This is the most common form of asthma and is triggered by irritants such as pollen, dust mites or mould.

University of British Columbia microbiology professor Brett Finlay said: “It has long been suspected kids exposed to more antibiotics – like those in developed countries – are more prone to allergic asthma. Our study is the first experimental proof that shows how.”

Leanne Metcalf, assistant director of Research at Asthma UK, said: “We know early life is a crucial time for the immune system to develop properly to protect us against harmful things in the environment. In developed countries where we see lower levels of bacteria and infection because of modern cleaning and medical practices, we also see higher rates of asthma. This is because these practices encourage the immune system to become over-sensitive to substances in the environment that are not harmful, causing conditions like allergic asthma. Any information which helps us to understand how the way we treat infections in our children can influence their susceptibility to asthma and allergies – and how badly they are affected – is greatly welcomed.”

The research, reported in the journal EMBO, examined how two common antibiotics – streptomycin and vancomycin – affected the bacterial “ecosystem” in the guts of mice. Experts found antibiotics changed the balance of bacteria in young mice’s guts – increasing the altered the bacteria in the intestine and increased the severity of asthma in the young. But the same antibiotics did not impact adult mice’s susceptibility to asthma, indicating early life is a critical period of establishing a healthy immune system.

The report said: “Allergic asthma affects more than 100 million people worldwide and its prevalence is increasing on average by 50% every decade, particularly among children in industrialised countries.”

Around 100 trillion bacteria live in the human gut, which contains more than 1,000 different bacterial species.

Prof Finlay said that while these micro-organisms – known as gut flora – have an important health role. He added: “Modern societal practices, such as improved sanitation methods and widespread antibiotic use, are causing the disappearance of ancestral species of bacteria in our gut that may be critical to a healthy immune system. Our study shows this is the case with certain antibiotics and allergic asthma. The gut-lung connection is also consistent with observations that incidence of asthma has not increased significantly in developing countries where antibiotic use is less prevalent – and in turn the gut flora is permitted to fully develop.”

Marc Ouellette, a scientific director at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, said: “It has been recognised microbes play an important role in human health – and we are discovering a disruption of these bugs is associated with a number of chronic health conditions. The important results from Prof Finlay’s team confirm giving antibiotics to young children, which disturb their normal bacterial flora, should not be taken lightly.”


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