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How A Cow In Your Living Room Could Make the Difference for Asthma and Allergies

Ted Van Pelt
The proximity of some Amish colonies to livestock is shedding light on the formation of asthma and allergies.

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine, co-authored by a University of Iowa professor, may help explain the link between cleanliness and rates of asthma and allergies. Peter Thorne is a Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health. He says the study compared a group of Amish children to a group with similar genetics and lifestyles.

"One interpretation could be everybody should have a cow in their home."

  None of the Amish children had asthma, compared with 20-percent of the other group. Dust may be the difference. Thorne says dust from Amish homes contained seven times as much of a potent substance that stimulates the body’s immune system, probably due to close contact with livestock.

“From a therapy standpoint, if we can identify what kinds of exposures are protecting these Amish children from allergy and asthma, we may be able to make the same kinds of stimuli for the immune system that they get naturally through some other means.”

The study has implications for more than just those who grow up in the country.

"This study shows us that it's our modern lifestyle, preventing exposures to these early immune system triggers, that is making us at greater risk for these diseases. So the public health message, one interpretation could be everybody should have a cow in their home."

Thorne says more analysis of the Amish dust is needed to pinpoint the exact microbes that help protect against asthma and allergy, as this type of research becomes increasingly important.

"From about 1980 to about 2000, we saw between a doubling and tripling of asthma rates among the general population in the US. And that has a tremendous burden on children and the parents plus the medical care system. So there's been a great effort to try to understand what caused that increase and to be able to reverse that."

In this hour of River to River, host Ben Kieffer discusses the study with Thorne.

Also in this hour:

  • Bill Petroski, State Governmental Reporter at the Des Moines Register, discusses the suspected arson of the Bakken pipeline construction sites
  • Doug Burns, Co-Owner of Herald Publishing Company, explains what happened when a controversial float targeted Hillary Clinton in an Arcadia parade last weekend and shares the political mood in Western Iowa
  • Lan Samantha Chang, Director of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and May Brodbeck Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences, shares a remembrance of James Alan McPherson
  • Jacqueline Halbloom, IPR music host, host of the monthly “Iowa Arts Showcase,” previews the showcase
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River