Childhood infections

Childhood leukaemia is on the rise in the more affluent parts of the world. This has been known about for some years, but a recent overview of research has confirmed that there is a link with lack of exposure to infections in early childhood. In other words, if we keep the environment too clean for our infants, there is a risk that their immune systems will not mature properly.

It is normal and natural for a young child to have one cold or tummy upset after another, along with a variety of other viral and bacterial infections. Each new pathogen challenges their immune system and helps it to develop, so that by the time they reach adulthood, they have immunity to a wide range of diseases, and the means to cope with many others. We’ve known for a long time that a child is more likely to develop allergies if it doesn’t have enough challenges to its immune system, and allergies are now so common in the Western world that we see them as almost normal; but childhood leukaemia, and other infant immune deficiencies, is less easy to accept. It’s more directly life-threatening, and the emotional impact is much more dramatic, so we are more likely to sit up and pay attention.

‘We all have to eat a peck of dirt before we die’ used to be a saying when I was a child, but I haven’t heard it lately. Antibacterial wipes, antibiotics, vaccines and better hygiene have got us to a point where it’s almost seen as a failure if our children catch colds, or anything else for that matter. But they have to, or the cost tomorrow may be far greater than a runny nose and a temperature today. I’m not suggesting we go back to having measles parties and so forth, but we need our illnesses. And there’s a strong association with going to a nursery as an infant; if you play with other children, you pass the illnesses around. You’re also probably setting yourself up with a defence against depression in later life, because regular social interaction is strongly linked with wellbeing. But that’s another story.

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