Minimal Exposure of Children to Germs Blamed for Leukemia

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Minimal Exposure of Children to Germs Blamed for Leukemia

Delicate care of a mother to her children. / Photo by Kiselev Andrey Valerevich via Shutterstock

The obsession for a sparklingly clean environment in rearing children has taken its toll on the functional immune system. Children who were exposed to benign bacteria and viruses during their infancy have stronger immune systems to fight diseases. Meanwhile, children who have not dealt with common infection challenges while young have weak immune systems. As they grow up and become exposed to common infections such as a bad cold or flu, they have higher chances of developing a second genetic mutation which leads to leukemias and cancers.Childhood leukemias occur in children not only because of deviant genetics or radiation exposure but also from lack of common infections that help boost the immune system in their childhood.In today’s world, a mother's natural instinct is to protect her child from dirt with an arsenal of carry-all-disinfectants such as antibacterial wet wipes, fragrance-free hand sanitizers,  antiseptic rubbing alcohol, and sterilized, disposable mats to name a few. But according to Mel Greaves, a professor from the London-based Institute of Cancer Research and winner of the Royal Medal from the prestigious Royal Society, those first exposures to bacteria and viruses form a vital defense in the child’s system against leukemia.

The 2018 data from International Agency for Research on Cancer showed that cancer remains the leading cause of childhood mortality and that about 800,000 children worldwide died of cancer-related causes. About 200,000 children each year are diagnosed with cancer.


The Greaves Study that shows all the risks to take and situations that can trigger leukemia.

The Greaves Study

The Greaves study was recently published in the journal, Nature Reviews Cancer. His findings, theories, and evidence spanned three decades of research. It also collated global experts’ views in various fields of cell biology, immunology, genetics, epidemiology, and childhood leukemia.

In his research study, Greaves analyzed cases of acute lymphoblastic leukemia and arrived at the conclusion that ALL is preventable with increased social and environmental exposure of children.  He encouraged that babies as early as one year old be given more opportunities to interact with others at daycare centers where exposure to germs could strengthen their immune systems. He also cited other factors that contribute to lesser risks against ALL such as vaginal delivery rather than being born via sterile C-section, breastfeeding, and exposure to older siblings who bring home infections from their interactions.

Professor Greaves explained the “delayed infection” theory which can be triggered in two ways. The first trigger is when a child is born with a genetic mutation that could cause leukemia. This is less than one percent of those carrying the genetic mutation. The second trigger is when the child is exposed to common viruses and bacteria. This exposure encourages ALL to develop in the body. If the child has not encountered the common infections and has not set up the immune system while young, their body would not be ready to fight to ALL later on.

Today’s ALL treatment is as advanced as can be with 90 percent of the children diagnosed getting cured. However, the treatment involved is toxic and gradual and may have long-term consequences. One in every 20 children carries this genetic mutation which increases their risk of getting cancer later on in life. However, if a child has a strong and functional immune system, this genetic mutation could just remain dormant.

Apparently, children who came from affluent populations whose lifestyle is spick and span from everyday infections showed an increase in ALL cases.

Greaves showed data that ALL cases from the affluent group have risen by one percent annually and globally. This is also reflected in global perspective data where the rates of diseases are higher in affluent countries than in the poorest ones. The latter set of countries has a different scenario where cross-infection is common and families are large.


Happy children playing outdoor. / Photo by Sunny Studio via shutterstock.

The ALL Perspectives

He explained that in the modern and unspotted lifestyles where affluent children are raised, their cause of ALL is not due to infection but the absence of it.  This is also seen in cases of type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other allergic diseases.

The research study echoed the message of experts in this field that parents are not responsible for the cancer in their children. Hotdogs or hamburgers are also not responsible. Even power lines, nuclear fuel reprocessing stations or the Vatican radio mast are some of the myths dispelled by the experts. The study clearly showed that childhood leukemia is caused by a very bad combination of genetic mutations and lack of childhood infections.

Charles Swanton, professor and chief clinician at Cancer Research in the UK said, “This research sheds light on how a form of childhood blood cancer might develop, implicating a complex combination of genetics and early exposure to germs, dirt, and illness.”

But he added: “We want to assure any parents of a child who has or has had leukemia that there’s nothing that we know of that could have been done to prevent their illness.”

ALL rates are low or non-existent in the poorest countries, where families have many children and cross-infection is common. The Costa Rica situation, however, is an exception. This country infused budget to improve its health systems and medical schools. This resulted in fewer children in the family with an average of 2.3 today as compared to 7.2 children years ago. This family planning program also showed significant levels of ALL, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and type 1 diabetes.



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