Bureau of Labor Statistics photo courtesy

THE nearer to nature, the better a place to rear a child who ought to have, ah, the shop-list don’t come off a toy store’s shelves:

“(M)ud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud-turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, water-lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hay-fields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education.”

Such a gathering of critters and pickings in untamed patches of the countryside is straight out of a mall-hopping, couch-lounging city-dweller’s nightmare. Pioneer plant breeder and scientist Luther Burbank’s counsel plied in 1907 didn’t reckon with allergies galore.

And the faint of heart won’t agree with findings of a research team who kept tabs on 474 children from birth to six or seven years of age in 2002: “Children raised in a house with two or more dogs or cats during the first year of life may be less likely to develop allergic diseases as compared with children raised without pets.”

The study was supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Surprisingly, the exposure to pets early in life “appears” protective against pet allergy and other types of common allergies, “such as allergy to dust mites, ragweed and grass,” according to researchers.

Similar studies hinted at a buffering effect of exposure to pets on allergy and asthma symptoms. The previous studies focused on whether pet exposure reduced pet allergy.

The recent finding will likely shift the way scientists think about pet exposure—they must now figure out how pet exposure causes a general shift of the immune system away from an allergic response, researchers noted.

Research leader Dr. Dennis R. Ownby of the Medical College of Georgia, and his team suggest that pet-borne bacteria may be responsible for suppressing the immune system’s allergic response.

These bacteria release molecules called endotoxins, that are believed to shift the developing immune system away from responding to allergens through a class of lymphocytes called Th-2 cells, which are associated with allergic reactions. Instead, endotoxins may stimulate the immune system to activate Th-1 cells, which may block allergic reactions, researchers explained.

When children under study were a year old, the researchers phoned their parents to find out how many pets were kept at home. On the children’s second birthday, researchers measured the level of dust mite allergen in their bedrooms. At 6-7 years old, researchers tested the children for allergic antibodies to common allergens via a skin prick test and a blood measurement.

Findings: “Children exposed to two or more dogs or cats during the first year of life were on average 66-77% less likely to have any allergic antibodies to common allergens, as compared with children exposed to only one or no pets during their first year.”

“Our findings suggest an area of research with many possibilities, one that could potentially bear fruit over the next decade or so. If we could find out exactly what it is about pets or the bacteria they carry that prevents the allergic response, scientists might be able to develop a new allergy therapy based on that knowledge,” enthused Dr. Ownby.

Burbank must have been right in prescribing a chockfull of critters for every child to delight in, likely to learn from, and he went on to claim, “by being well acquainted with all these (critters and pickings in a lush landscape) they come into most intimate harmony with nature, whose lessons are, of course, natural and wholesome.” (AI/MTVN)

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