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Bugs, baby wipes and leukemia

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Being exposed to bugs early in life could help prevent cancer, says Rob Verkerk

I can’t imagine much more shocking news than learning your precious child has been diagnosed with leukemia. It’s a disease that’s on the rise in industrialized countries like the US and UK, with around 6,000 and 800 new diagnoses annually in these respective countries. But what if you knew about a way of protecting your new baby, reducing the chances he or she would get a shocking diagnosis before the age of four, the most common age that diagnoses are made?

I’m not talking about a new vaccine, but about making sure your baby gets exposed to plenty of common, ‘garden-variety’ bugs. This includes, literally, bugs from the garden, but also bugs from other kids. All of this normal exposure to bugs large and small in a child’s first year of life seems, from the latest science, to be protective.

What appears to increase leukemia risk is the very thing that lots of parents think will be protective – the sterile environments of many modern homes, full of antiseptic wipes coupled with regular courses of antibiotics. And let’s not forget bottle feeding with sterilized bottles, using sterilized cow’s milk formula and boiled, sterilized water.

Getting your precious bundle into the yard and making sure he or she gets lots of time with other kids, whether or not they’ve got runny noses, is exactly what nature needs us to do to prime the immune system. It’s a form of natural immunization, from which we shouldn’t spare our little loved ones if we want to give them the best chance of building strong immune systems that will do them proud as they get older.

A comprehensive review of the last 40 years of research and clinical experience on the most common form of childhood leukemia, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, sheds some fascinating new light on the importance of exposing kids in their first year to the normal range of bugs associated with life.

The work was published in May in the high-impact journal Nature Reviews Cancer by one of the most prominent and well-regarded cancer biologists in the world, Professor Mel Greaves from the Institute of Cancer Research in London.

It seems that children who contract leukemia have early lives that are particularly sterile. They seem to have escaped some of the key priming events needed for their immune systems.1

There are a few things on their own that seem to have modest effects on reducing childhood leukemia risk and that includes breastfeeding rather than bottle feeding. Again, it’s probably down to the extra bacteria kids end up taking in by nursing from a real breast that escapes sterilizers and disinfectants, along with the incredible range of immune factors Mother Nature knows to deliver.

Let’s also remember that childhood leukemia is one of the real success stories of conventional oncology. Around 90 percent of kids who are treated using conventional methods – the central plank of which is chemotherapy – survive for five years or more in advanced countries like the US and UK (survival rates are much lower in many developing countries, but, then again, the incidence is a lot lower too). In fact, this claim can’t be made for any other form of cancer.

But, as anyone who has experienced chemotherapy or radiotherapy knows, it’s also about quality of life. Kids who have leukemia are often subjected to prophylactic radiotherapy to their brains in an effort to kill cancer cells that might be hiding there. Some of them don’t fully recover.

The question we have to ask ourselves is how many other cancers may be preventable? And how many are linked to diets and lifestyles that are ‘sold’ to society as healthy? We’re learning seemingly by the day just how intimately our lives are connected to microorganisms, and there’s widespread knowledge among the public that the good bugs in our guts are really important for our health.

Yet most doctors and healthcare practitioners have little idea of what foods we need to help along those good bugs in our guts – and antibiotics are still commonly prescribed unnecessarily.

We’re also learning that sterile foods aren’t so good for us, but there’s a balancing act between making sure we don’t eat foods that contribute to food-borne illnesses, some of which have the capacity to kill. In fact, as many as 5,000 Americans die from food-borne diseases each year. But most of that is the result of the industrial food system and isn’t about being exposed to a bit of pesticide-free soil on your salad or carrots, which probably does us a lot of good.

Most people don’t realize that much of the supermarket salad vegetables we consume in the industrialized world are grown hydroponically and have never seen a grain of soil. Plants need bugs around their roots to develop properly in ways that mean they can protect themselves from the various insects and diseases alongside which they’ve evolved over millions of years.

Let’s start respecting evolutionary processes a little more and see how we can protect ourselves and our young ones without feeling the need to always look for a high-tech solution, whether that’s the latest disinfectant, superbug-beating antiseptic or antibiotic, or the latest cancer drug.

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