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Antibiotics linked to huge rise in allergies

New Scientist

I spent this afternoon watching my cricket team lose to Magdelene College School (MCS). MCS were a very good side and my team put up a good fight.

A parent on the boundary turned out to be a leading researcher into asthma and allergies. He gave me an excellent layman's briefing, and outlined the apparent problems caused by our children being too clean, too well protected and too heavily medicated.

It seems that health care is like parenting. If you protect your children too much they never learn to stand up for themselves...

So maybe it wasn't altogether a bad thing that my side lost on this occasion. It should make them stronger in the long run.

The increasing use of antibiotics to treat disease may be responsible for the rising rates of asthma and allergies. By upsetting the body's normal balance of gut microbes, antibiotics may prevent our immune system from distinguishing between harmless chemicals and real attacks.

"The microbial gut flora is an arm of the immune system," says Gary Huffnagle at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbour. His research group has provided the first experimental evidence in mice that upsetting the gut flora can provoke an allergic response.

Asthma has increased by around 160 per cent globally in the last 20 years. Currently about a quarter of schoolchildren in the US and a third of those in the UK have the condition, but pinning down the causes of the rise has proved difficult. Some researchers have blamed modern dust-free homes, while others have pointed to diet.

Antibiotics have been implicated by some epidemiological studies. For example, the rise in allergies and asthma has tracked widespread antibiotic use. Furthermore, research in Berlin, Germany, has found that both antibiotic treatment and asthma were low in the east compared to the west when the wall came down.

As antibiotic use has increased in the east though, so has asthma. This study is particularly valuable because the politically divided populations were genetically very similar and enjoyed much the same menu.

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