If you needed another reason to relax your parenting standards, this is it: Researchers at the University of British Columbia have identified four bacteria—you know, the stuff kids get by eating something that’s fallen in the dirt or being licked by the family dog—that protect against developing asthma.
The study looked at 300 one-year-olds who were likely to get asthma because they wheezed and tested positive for allergens on a skin prick test. Researchers had been following these kids since before they were born as part of a Canadian study of almost 4,000 families. “We could go back to the freezer and pull out their stool samples from when they were three months old,” says Stuart Turvey, a paediatric immunologist at BC Children’s Hospital and co-author of the study. (Turvey notes that, by age three, most of these kids had gone on to be diagnosed with asthma.)
In analyzing the stool samples, researchers discovered that the kids who had signs of asthma at age one were missing four bacteria at three months of age. Turvey says little is known about these particular bacteria and where exactly a baby would get them—in addition to the environment, the bacteria in a baby’s gut is influenced by whether she was born vaginally or by C-section (the baby gets a nice bath in bacteria when coming down the birth canal) and whether she was breastfed. But he says the study emphasizes the importance of bacteria in health: “We often see it as the enemy,” says Turvey, “but letting children be outside, playing, interacting with animals and not living in fear of bacteria, is a useful message for families.”
While the study isn’t about to change asthma screening or treatment just yet, Turvey says it might be possible to develop a test that could check a baby’s stool for these bacteria at three months of age. If they’re missing, this would indicate that the baby's doctor should be on the lookout for asthma symptoms.
This research may one day have even greater benefits. “I want to prevent this disease,” says Turvey. “This is the first step in a journey where we could eventually give this bacteria to kids to prevent asthma.”