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Monday, 11 October, 1999, 07:55 GMT 08:55 UK
Farm animals 'reduce allergies'
Pigs
Pigs may help stimulate the immune system
Young children in regular contact with farm animals are less likely to develop allergies later in life, researchers have found.

They believe that regular contact with farm animals during childhood could provide lasting protection against allergic illnesses.

Researchers from Austria studied 2,283 children aged eight to ten.

They presented their findings on Monday at the meeting of the European Respiratory Society (ERS) in Madrid.

The parents of the children were asked in a detailed questionnaire to provide information about the children's daily lives and about any allergies from they suffered.

At the same time, 1137 of the children were subjected to what the doctors call "skin prick tests" intended to show up any immediate hyper-sensitivity to seven different substances that could cause local allergies.

Hay fever and asthma

Asthma
Exposure to farm animals may reduce risk of developing asthma
Children living on farms were found to be three times less sensitive to hay fever and nearly four times less likely to suffer from asthma than those living in a non-rural environment.

Reactions to skin prick tests were about twice less frequent for farm children as for the others.

Even taking other factors, such as genetic background, parents' education, eating habits and living conditions, into account, there was still a marked difference between the two groups.

Lead Researcher Josef Riedler tested how the figures would look in the case of regular contact with cattle or poultry - regardless of the kind of environment the child lived in.

He found that the gap between town and country closed substantially, suggesting that regular contact with farm animals was the crucial factor.

The reason why some children develop protection has not been established.

One possible explanation is that children in regular contact with farm animals are exposed to potential allergens at an early age, giving the immune system time to build up protection.

Study contradicts earlier findings

Cows
Researchers tested the effect of exposure to cows
However, Professor Kai-Håkon Carlsen, Head of the ERS Pediatric Assembly, said previous studies had shown that early exposure to allergens had indicated there was an increased risk of developing allergies later in life.

He said: "In the light of the present report, it is therefore important to establish whether there are bacterial products or antigens from stables that may be effective in protecting against later sensitisation for children raised on farms.

"It should not be forgotten that for children who have developed an allergy towards domestic animals like cats or dogs, it is very important to keep them away from those animals in order to counteract a more severe development of the disease."

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