HAVING too clean a start to life is linked to childhood leukaemia, a study finds.
An over-sterile environment in the first year of life, coupled with unlucky genetics, can leave a child vulnerable to common infections such as flu triggering the disease, an expert claims.
Prof Mel Greaves, from the Institute of Cancer Research in London, claims the most common form of childhood leukaemia — acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) — could be prevented by exposing them to harmless bugs.
‘All the evidence is comprehensive. This is the bottom line for me — ALL is a paradox of progress in society,’ he said.
‘The research strongly suggests that ALL has a clear biological cause, and is triggered by a variety of infections in predisposed children whose immune systems have not been properly primed.
‘It also busts some persistent myths about the causes of leukaemia, such as the damaging but unsubstantiated claims that the disease is commonly caused by exposure to electromagnetic waves or pollution.’
His theory could explain why ALL, which affects white blood cells, is more prevalent in affluent societies where infants are shielded from infection. It may also be the reason why babies that are not breastfed, do not mix with other children in nurseries, are born by Caesarean section, or do not have siblings are more likely to develop the disease.
ALL affects about one in 2,000 UK children a year but can have a devastating impact despite a high cure rate.
In tests, mice reared in an ultra-clean germ-free environment developed ALL when they were later exposed to common infectious bugs. Records show ‘spikes’ of childhood leukaemia cases six months after flu epidemics peak.
Prof Greaves said the immune system was not hard-wired at birth.
Parents should ‘in no way’ be blamed for children developing leukaemia, but should be ‘less fussy about common or trivial infections’ and let them mix with others in the first year of life, he added.