The Farm Effect: One facet of the allergy epidemic

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A panel of allergy experts answers questions at AHCJ 2014. Dr. Mark Holbreich, third from the left, has found that Amish children have lower rates of allergies than even Swiss farm children. The Amish have roots in Switzerland.

By Rebecca Dell 

DENVER — Could farms be a solution to our allergy epidemic?

A phenomenon called the farm effect, studied by Dr. Mark Holbreich of Allergy and Asthma Consultants, suggests that children who are consistently exposed to farm environments from a young age are less like to develop allergies.

Holbreich was one of four allergy experts convened at the annual conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Other panelists were Dr. Dan Atkins, associate professor at Children’s Hospital Colorado; Dr. Erwin Gelfand, chair of pediatrics, National Jewish Health; and Dr. Gideon Lack, professor of pediatric allergy, King’s College London.

Years ago, Holbreich held a series of free allergy clinics for the Amish population in northern Indiana. But he found that few of the Amish people coming to his clinics actually had allergies. Then, in the 1990s, health researcher Dr. Erika Von Mutius found that children from dirtier areas of East Germany were not as afflicted by allergies and asthma as children in cleaner areas of West Germany. This discovery led to something called the hygiene hypothesis, which says that children who are surrounded by other children and animals as youngsters build up greater tolerance to microbes and thus are less likely to develop allergies later in life.

In a 2001 study, referenced by Holbreich in his talk and published in the medical journal The Lancet, Von Mutius and her co-authors surveyed families with children ages 6-13 in rural areas of Austria, Germany and Switzerland. It found that children who had early exposure to stables and farm milk were less likely to develop asthma, hay fever and atopic sensitization.

And then, more recently, Holbreich and fellow researchers found that Amish children have even lower rates of allergies than Swiss farm children. He doesn’t know exactly why; there seems to be a connection to the mother drinking raw milk while pregnant, but as Holbreich notes, this is not safe in general. The reason also seems to relate back to the hygiene hypothesis. Holbreich affirms that there’s room for further study. Not everyone can move onto an Amish farm, of course. But future studies may help scientists and doctors better understand what can be done to curb the allergy epidemic.

See more from this AHCJ 2014 session at AHCJ’s blog and this New York Times article on Holbreich’s research

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