From The Beginning
Protecting And Building Up Our Children's
Immune Systems

Over the past few years, there have been many warnings about the appearance of new, highly resistant strains of various microbes. Intelligent people, especially those responsible for the care of children, need to act on these warnings. We know enough now without further studies (or word from "official" sources that often move at glacial speed) to accept responsibility for doing whatever we can to protect lives entrusted to our care.

What is happening? Many things, actually. They all center on the fact that bacteria and viruses are able to change very quickly in response to changing conditions and threats to their survival. We absolutely can't afford to underestimate the adaptability and ingenuity of microorganisms. Viruses can combine to produce recombinant versions with greater range or virulence or both. Some bacteria go so far as, for instance, as to produce protein coatings for themselves that enable them to live (in dormancy) through all kinds of onslaughts — including the high heats and heavy disinfecting agents that normally wipe them out. (One breed of bacteria can not only survive Clorox but actually live on it!)

First of All, Avoid Unnecessary Antibiotic Use.

One of the most important understandings we need to act from is this: Our use and misuse of antibiotics has guaranteed that the bugs left to multiply are the ones resistant to our drugs, and has actually encouraged dangerous mutations in bacteria and viruses. Other practices, such as the use of genetically crippled viruses to protect crops, have helped produced new, pathogenic viral species through exchange of genetic material. But what impacts our daily lives most and is most open to change is antibiotic use.

Probably the single most important thing a concerned parent can be on guard against is the scattershot use of antibiotics early in a child's life. That doesn't mean we're supposed to second-guess a doctor who calls for an antibiotic to be used against a potentially life-threatening illness. What we should be questioning, and strongly resisting if necessary, is the increasing use of antibiotics to combat conditions ranging from ear infections to diaper-caused problems.

In an interview on National Public Radio on February 24, 2000, Dr. Mark Chassen, co-author of a recent report (from the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine) on medical mistakes, which has caused something of a furore in the United States, said that about twenty million Americans annually are given antibiotics for cold/flu conditions for which these drugs are completely useless. He estimated that four billion doses of antibiotics annually are completely wasted. This is a tremendously serious problem.

Middle ear infections, which account for more than 40 per cent of all antibiotics prescribed to children, probably involve the worst antibiotic misuse. A significant number are due to food allergies — especially to milk products and wheat — and disappear soon after the child is taken off the offending food. One study in an otolaryngology journal followed 153 children with ear aches, found food allergies in 93.3 per cent of them, and achieved a success rate twice that of antibiotic use by removing the offending foods.

A key fact worth knowing is that studies have also shown that breastfeeding a child for six months or more dramatically reduces ear infections. That is probably due to (1) increased immune function fighting off microbes (breastfeeding builds infants' immune systems), (2) the anti-inflammatory properties of breast milk, and (3) avoiding the usual substitutes for breast milk in the children's diets. Prevention, of course, is by far the best option. Another very simple precaution is to avoid propping a baby with a bottle, since propping often causes regurgitation of the bottle's contents into the middle ear.

Once an ear infection is present, you should see your doctor, but don't accept an antibiotic without at least determining the urgency of the situation. Many babies simply do better without antibiotic use. (In 30 to 50 per cent of ear infections, the harmful bacteria treatable with antibiotics are completely absent.) Recent studies suggest that treating some ear infections with antibiotics actually increase the likelihood of recurrent ear infections. (This certainly seems in line with the sequences which antibiotics can breed resistance.) Surgical drainage also greatly raises the repeat incidence of infection.

It is not easy to face down a doctor who is obviously an automatic antibiotic prescriber — especially since the consequences of ear infection can be serious and the doctor is unlikely to even know of, let alone accept, other treatments. But there are various natural therapies, including the use of warm mullein oil in the ear, various nutritional supplements (beta-carotene, Vitamin C, zinc picolinate and others) and herbal medicines such as echinacea, golden seal, and licorice root. An excellent source to conult for natural treatment of this condtion and others is An Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, published by Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA (916/786-0426).

It is not for us, or anyone at a distance from your baby's actual condition, to try to gauge your baby's condition. Try to find a doctor who is knowledgeable, not an antibiotic automaton, and inform your own intuition for a fruitful consultation with her or him.

Antibiotics for diaper problems????

It seems absolutely insane, and a sublime example of treating problems instead of their causes, that some doctors are prescribing antibiotics (not to mention heavy-duty fungicides and cortisone creams) to deal with the infections that develop out of today's increasingly poor diapering hygiene. Babies, in the rush of modern life, are being left in unchanged disposable diapers for long periods (five, ten, even twelve hours), in the mistaken belief that as long as the superabsorbent chemical in the diapers is slurping up wetness, everything is okay. That's dangerously wrong. Dryness is not cleanliness, and the chemical superabsorbent in disposables can dry out the skin to the point where ulceration can occur, leading to infection as the condition interacts with bacteria on the skin. Changing a baby every two hours or so — and airing the baby's bottom for a while at changes — is often the answer, as can be the use of cotton diapers instead of disposables. (In addition to the poor hygiene encouraged by present "superabsorbent" disposables, and skin problems from drying out, some babies are allergic to them.)

Antibiotics have been responsible for tremendous advances in fighting infectious disease, but if they are to continue to be effective, we must use them judiciously, not as cure-alls or security blankets. Hopefully the above information will help that happen.

Building children's ability to fight off disease.

Given the increasing presence of resistant microbes in our world, we clearly need to do everything we can to build our children's immune function. As we began to indicate above, that starts with breastfeeding. There is just no question that the best thing you can do to start your child toward continuing health is to breastfeed. If humanly possible, do it for six months or more. Beyond this bottom-line beginning, which all children deserve, there are three key ways in which we can help build children's personal vibrancy to combat an increasingly worrisome environment:

1. Give kids the personal attention they need!

The human immune system, our constant line of defense against an incredible number of organisms with agendas of their own that threaten ours, is a fantastic creation whose ability to function is affected by everything from our circulatory systems to our emotions. To help understand the importance of the latter, and of the sense of personal well-being that our children deserve, one of the most powerful clues is a photograph published many years ago in The Smithsonian magazine. A photomicrograph, it showed a virus entering a human cell through an aperture that is normally covered — when we are feeling emotionally "good" and self-confident — by a protective film created by neuropeptides that our minds generate. This "film of well-being" that normally helps wall out invaders can disappear under psychological stress, which is one obvious reason why everything from colds to cancer often seems to be preceded by stress that "breaks through our defenses."

There is no question that a sense of psychological well-being in a child is a vital link in her or his immune system, and that this in turn depends on direct personal attention in sufficient quantities, so that the child feels securely "placed" in the world. This doesn't mean you have to fuss constantly over a child to make sure you notice and service every little whim or nuance. But it does mean providing enough of an actual, perceived flow of love to a child, and enough of a sense of security, that the body's "film of well-being" is strong and constant. There is no substitute for that perceived flow of love. Today's high-speed world tends to substitute diversions and activities in children's lives for the attention children really need. All those carefully-arranged diversions and activities don't replace direct, personal attention. In fact, the more frantic the pursuit of activities, and the more removed the moms and dads are from participating with the child, the less secure a child's sense of placement and self-confidence.

Attention not only provides psychological buttressing for a child's well-being, but also can bring recognition of linkages between childhood illnesses and allergies or chemical sensitivities. An appalling number of children have environmental illnesses of one kind or another. In fact, these illnesses are now the biggest cause of time lost from school. Conditions as disparate as asthma and depression are being triggered by chemical sensitivities and allergens, and it seems clear that a substantial percentage of attention-deficit disorder (ADD) is either chemical or allergic in origin. Close attention is a must for picking up the actual origins of a problem. A hurtful irony is that many time-starved parents who are driven to the wall looking for solutions to their children's hyperactivity or depression would not be so far into overload if they had managed — or could still manage — to take the close look at a child's living environment. That inspection can provide the clue to where and how a problem is triggered.

We will be providing more information shortly on other things that can improve your child(ren)'s immune function, including lots of opportunity for physical play.

From The Beginning index