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Sunday, 23 June, 2002, 23:31 GMT 00:31 UK
Bacteria 'ease babies' eczema'
Babies were given formula milk in the study
Babies were given formula milk in the study
Giving babies "friendly" gut bacteria during weaning can help reduce the symptoms of eczema, researchers say.

Finnish doctors say this could be because they help change the gut's ecosystem.

But UK experts have said although this is a "small brick in the wall of scientific evidence" about the effectiveness of the bacteria, this particular study was too small to be seen as reliable proof.

Eczema, or dermatitis, affects about one in five children of school age in the UK, and about one in 12 adults.


As doctors we have to be absolutely sure - the evidence just isn't there yet

Professor Ashley Woodcock, Wythenshawe Hospital
It can range from mild forms, where the skin is dry, hot and itchy, to more severe forms where the skin can become broken, raw and bleeding.

Atopic eczema is thought to be a hereditary condition, and people with it are thought to be sensitive to allergens in the environment which are harmless to others.

Atopy is an allergic reaction which has strong familial tendencies.

'Unfriendly' bacteria

Stool samples were taken from 21 babies who had already shown signs of atopic eczema and were at a heightened risk of developing allergies.

Those who were given probiotic bacteria in their milk were found to have lower levels of harmful bacteria.

Babies who were not given supplemented milk had increased levels.

Having more of the harmful bacteria was linked to higher levels of a chemical called immunoglobulin E which indicates the immune system is being stimulated.

These high levels are associated with diseases such as hay fever, asthma and eczema.

The researchers from the Functional Foods Forum at the University of Turku, led by Dr Pirkka Kirjavainen, say that giving babies probiotic bacteria prevents increases in levels of harmful bacteria.

They suggest this may be part of how the probiotic bacteria alleviates atopic eczema.

'Bigger studies needed'

The Finnish team had previously found that giving the bacteria to pregnant women, then to the baby post-natally, halved the rate of eczema in children at risk of developing allergies.

Ashley Woodcock, professor of respiratory medicine at the North West Lung Centre at Wythenshawe Hospital, Manchester, is leading a study of the effects of friendly bacteria on 200 babies with eczema aged three to six months.

He told BBC News Online: "This is a small brick in a scientific wall of evidence.

"We need bigger studies, properly constructed."

Professor Woodcock warned parents should not give probiotic bacteria to babies until there was conclusive evidence it could help eczema, and not cause other damage to their health.

"As doctors we have to be absolutely sure. The evidence just isn't there yet.

"So to give probiotics to healthy children - we need to know if it's going to make a difference, and if it's going to make children ill."

The research is published in the journal Gut.

See also:

26 Apr 02 | Health
26 Mar 02 | England
13 May 02 | Health
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