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‘Fear of germs’ causes food allergies in Melbourne around the world

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You would think clean cities and environments would be a good thing, but it appears Australia’s germophobia has driven the country to the dubious distinction of world leader in food allergies.

“Unfortunately Australia does appear to be the food allergy capital of the world with Melbourne leading the way,” Professor Katie Allen, of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, said.

Professor Allen told an immunology convention in Melbourne the reason the city was most probably worse than other Australian cities was due to its location.

“The further from the equator you live, the higher the risk of food allergy,” she said.

Professor Allen said the findings fit with the so-called vitamin D hypothesis, that children with low levels of vitamin D were more susceptible to food allergies, and Melbourne’s cooler climate meant children spent less time exposed to the sun than in most other Australian cities.

She said the other factors driving Australia’s rising food allergies were cleanliness and parents unwillingness to give babies solid food from a variety of food groups.

She said there were new global consensus guidelines for feeding infants to best prevent food allergies.

“We should no longer delay the introduction of peanut, eggs and cows milk in the infant’s diet and that they should have these food introduced in the first year of life soon after solids are commenced,” she said.

Professor Allen said food groups like nuts and dairy should be introduced to an infant’s diet in small amounts from six months of age.

“The introduction early is not only safe, it looks like it’s protective,” she said.

Dirty environments ‘protective’

Germophobic parents might also be doing their children a disservice by not letting them play in dirty environments.

“The exposure to microbes in the right form, whether it’s getting out and playing in the dirt or with dogs or going to farms, appears to be protective and we’re just not getting enough of that in the built environment here in Melbourne,” Professor Allen said.

Farm environments have been identified as particularly effective in preventing allergies.

Professor Hamida Hammad, from Ghent University in Belgium, found children exposed to dust from dairy farms were immune to dairy allergies and asthma.

“So in Europe people have started building day centres within farms, so that the children from before two years old are continuously exposed to hay and cattle,” she said.

It is hoped Professor Hammad’s findings could lead to a vaccine for asthma.
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