Worms in pregnancy could protect babies against body allergy

New research shows that a woman who has worms during pregnancy could give birth to a child with developed immunity against allergies. Photo Flavia Lanyero

If a mother has worms when she is pregnant, her chance of giving birth to a child with increased immunity against allergies is high, according to findings from a new study conducted at the Uganda Virus Research Institute.

Worms are generally known to cause infections like anaemia, bilharzia, and liver damage, but the study titled ‘The Entebbe Mother and Baby Study’, found that that maternal worms could actually offer protection against allergies such as eczema and asthma.

Eczema is not dangerous, but most types cause red, swollen and itchy skin. Factors that can cause eczema include various diseases, irritating substances, allergies and a person’s genetic makeup.

Prof Alison Elliot, the lead researcher for the study says that while pregnant women are usually treated for worms, it could be exposing their unborn babies to future allergies, which could have been prevented if these mothers did not take deworming medicines.

The study found that eczema, a common skin allergen in children was non-existent in babies whose mothers did not deworm during pregnancy.
“The findings shows that only 10 to15 per cent of the children whose mothers had no worms during pregnancy had eczema” Prof Elliot said. The study, which enrolled 2,500 pregnant mothers, was carried out between 2003 and 2005.

Follow-up study
The researchers are now doing a follow up on these children to establish if the immunity they got from their mothers against allergies can offer protection against asthma.
“We are beginning to look at asthma because now the children are at an age where we can tell whether they are asthmatic or not,” says Prof. Elliot.

“While we know that worms cause serious infections, in future we may have to consider the fact that the same worms will protect children against allergies as we try to prevent or reduce anaemia in mothers,”she adds.

Anaemia in mothers
Anaemia is a common complication for lactating mothers in Uganda, and many other countries worldwide.
While there are many causes for anaemia, iron deficiency is the most common among women of childbearing age.
The findings have been published in the US National Institute of Health.

In a separate study, researchers from King’s College London, and the University of Dundee found that the breakdown in the skin barrier that occurs in eczema could play a key role in triggering food sensitivity in babies.

Food allergies
The researchers said the discovery suggests that food allergies may develop through immune cells in the skin rather than in the gut and that the findings indicate that eczema may be a potential target for preventing food allergies in children.
At least 600 infants, who were three months old and exclusively breast-fed from birth, were studied.

They were tested for eczema and checked to see if they were sensitised about the six most common allergenic foods.
Egg white was the most common allergen found, followed by cow’s milk and peanuts.

The study found that the more severe the eczema was, the stronger link it had to food sensitivity. This finding opens up the possibility that by repairing the skin barrier and preventing eczema, it might be possible to reduce the risk of food allergies.