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article imageOp-Ed: New health findings cause rethink of immune and allergy issues

By Paul Wallis     Jun 20, 2012 in Health
Sydney - Folklore is turning into fact. The suspicion that antibacterial agents are responsible for allergies now appears confirmed. A new finding also indicates that commensal bacteria are responsible for a healthy immune system.
Science Daily has simultaneously published two sets of findings which appear to indicate that many of the suspicions related to modern life are actually correct. One of the most important findings is the relationship between commensal bacteria and controlling viral diseases.
The Science Daily article on commensal bacteria really is an eye-opener:
Signals from commensal bacteria influence immune-cell development and susceptibility to infectious or inflammatory diseases. Commensal microbial communities colonize barrier surfaces of the skin, vaginal, upper respiratory, and gastrointestinal tracts of mammals and consist of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses. The largest and most diverse microbial communities live in the intestine.
Previous studies in patients have associated alterations in bacterial communities with susceptibility to diabetes, obesity, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, allergy, and other disorders. Despite knowing all of this, exactly how commensal bacteria regulate immunity after being exposed to pathogens is not well understood.
Commensal bacteria react to viruses. Their reaction triggers an immune response. What the scientists have discovered, however, is that if the commensal bacteria are in any way impaired, for example by antibiotics, that their function as an alarm system is also impaired. This has major ramifications for a large range of important medical issues. It's long been the theory that viruses are responsible for significant genetic damage.
Viruses, for the record, are not the invincible, indestructible monsters that they are historically reputed to be. Quite the opposite, in fact. Low-level viral infections can be destroyed by the body's immune system, removing the threat before it becomes an actual medical condition. Many commensal bacteria are also actively hostile to both disease bacteria and viruses and also act as preventative defences. These findings are actually a very strong argument for promoting the well-being of commensal bacteria which logically means that antibiotic use will have to be modified. It may even be possible to bring into service some of these commensal bacteria as supplements to promote health.
The new information published by Science Daily regarding the origins of allergies is equally significant given the virtual epidemic level of allergic conditions in the world at present. It also directly relates to the use of antibacterial products which obviously could have a serious effect on commensal bacteria.
The investigators say their findings are also consistent with the so-called hygiene hypothesis, which has recently gained traction as one possible explanation behind the growing rates of food and environmental allergies in the developed world. The hypothesis suggests that early childhood exposure to common pathogens is essential in building healthy immune responses. Lack of such exposure, according to the theory, can lead to an overactive immune system that misfires against harmless substances such as food proteins, pollen or pet dander.
"The link between allergy risk and antimicrobial exposure suggests that these agents may disrupt the delicate balance between beneficial and bad bacteria in the body and lead to immune system dysregulation, which in turn raises the risk of allergies," Savage added.
(Lead investigatorJessica Savage, M.D., M.H.S., an allergy and immunology fellow at Johna Hopkins Childrens Center.)
Rewriting health practices for the 21st-century
In epidemiological terms, there is an interesting pedigree to these findings. If you accept the fact that in the post-World War II era, very high instances of allergies and viral diseases have become major problems where previously they were only minor issues, it means that the global environment has been sufficiently changed by human actions to have effectively altered global micro-fauna. That means that the entire global ecological script has been rewritten, and that major policy changes are needed in regard to the use of antibacterial agents and antibiotics.
This is a large conceptual mountain for health authorities and the medical profession. On the one hand, the medical profession is pretty much dependent on antibiotics as a major front-line defence. On the other hand, global health issues are being seriously exacerbated by a series of apparently preventable problems.
Penicillin was the wonder drug of the post-war era. It undeniably saved millions of lives, and drastically improved human health. Modern antibiotics have become so efficient that they have also had a major impact on human health. It is becoming obvious, however, that the new resistant bacteria and viral mutation mean that the practices of the past won't hold good in future.
This is a really fascinating situation. There are multiple possibilities for revising medical practices, but it's a matter of opinion whether or not the commercial mindset of the pharmaceutical industry will follow suit. Household product manufacturers may also find themselves required to retool their products, which is likely to be expensive.
It is unlikely that a public health campaign based on "dirt is good for you" would get approval from anybody. Apparently the fact is that being dirty is a lot healthier for you than anybody ever realised, and all of those baby snuffles and squawks are actually a sign of good health in future, however alarming at the time.
If the misery of allergies can be prevented by any means possible, it should be. If the hideous diseases caused by viral damage can be prevented, they should be. These are no-brainers. It will be interesting to see, however, whether or not the various stakeholders have the brains to see it that way.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Immunology, Resistant bacteria, Epidemiology, Johns Hopkins Children's Centre, Antibacterial agents and disease
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