Down the dusty road

Tiny specks of dust or bacteria might be a nightmare for some, especially as Hong Kong is raising its guard amid a potential pneumonia outbreak.

However, recent research has found that fears of getting sick and over-cleaning are unnecessary. In fact, dust from rural farms is anti-inflammatory and beneficial for children in preventing allergic asthma.

Between 2013 and 2016, the department of pediatrics and department of chemical pathology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong collaborated with researchers from Germany, Finland and mainland China to collect blood samples from 2,168 children in Europe, the mainland and Hong Kong.

The study found that levels of the anti-inflammatory protein TNFAIP3 in asthmatic children who live in the city were about half of those found in healthy children, levels that were unable to suppress inflammation.

They also found that dust from farm environments could stimulate TNFAIP3 levels in cells and reduce the level of genes that caused inflammation.

“Asthmatic children from both Germany and Hong Kong expressed less TNFAIP3, which resulted in an uncontrollable inflammatory status,” said Wong Chun-kwok, a professor from the department of chemical pathology. “We also confirmed that the low TNFAIP3 expression levels were presented at birth in children who had asthma by the age of 10, suggesting TNFAIP3 as a potential biomarker for asthma prediction.”

The researchers then extracted dust from rural Germany and Finland for stimulating cell samples from urban asthmatic children.

Results showed that the cells returned to normal levels of TNFAIP3, while the levels of the gene that causes inflammation were reduced.

Gary Wong Wing-kin, a professor from the department of pediatrics, concluded that the anti-inflammatory capacities shown after the dust stimulation might indicate a potential therapeutic role for farm dust exposure.

Their findings have been published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. In the next phase of the study, the team will look for more dust types to confirm its role in treating asthma. “This may represent a promising future agent for asthma prevention and treatment,” said Gary Wong.

In Hong Kong, between 6,000 and 8,000 cases of asthma are admitted to public hospitals each year, with around 100 becoming fatal. Chairman of the department of pediatrics, Leung Ting-fan, also said that asthma was the most common cause of hospitalization among Hong Kong children.

Wong believes that correct diagnosis and education are crucial to treating asthma. Prevention is better than cure, and raising parents’ and children’s awareness of asthma could effectively reduce the admission rate and incidence of patients.

He said that many parents in the city are over-protective of their children by trying to prevent them from being exposed to different microbes or bacteria.

This restrains the immune system from developing healthy anti-inflammatory mechanisms, making children more susceptible to disease. Children should get in touch with nature through activities such as hiking or to raise pets to increase their immunity by exposing them to more bacteria, he advised.

(This article was published at The Standard on January 21, 2020: Education: Down the dusty road )

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