Milk

How breast milk protects children from drug-resistant infections

Health & Fitness

How breast milk protects children from drug-resistant infections


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Summary

  • Already, studies conducted in Kenya show that an increasing number of bacterial infections are now becoming harder and sometimes impossible to treat as antibiotics become less and less effective.
  • According to the WHO, women are encouraged to exclusively breastfeed their children for the first six months of their life and thereafter complement the milk with additional foods until the baby is two years old.

Antibiotic resistance is one of the major problems affecting the health sector in Kenya and the World over.

This occurs when disease-causing bugs – known as bacteria – change in ways that render the medications used to cure the infections they cause ineffective.

Affected individuals usually have a hard time managing a myriad of ailments caused by bacteria since available drugs may not readily work for them.

Already, studies conducted in Kenya show that an increasing number of bacterial infections – such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, drug poisoning and gonorrhea – are now becoming harder and sometimes impossible to treat as antibiotics become less and less effective.

Doreen, a mother of two, knows too well the devastating effects of this challenge after losing her first-born son to pneumonia three years ago.

“For months before we eventually lost him, I had visited various hospitals where different types of treatments were prescribed but nothing seemed to work for the boy. After a new treatment regime, symptoms of the disease would lessen, only to reappear again with a higher intensity,” she recalls.

This antibiotic resistance problem has been linked to many causes. They include the overuse or misuse of antibiotics (such as taking antibiotics for viral infections like a cold or flu), failure to complete drug doses and the reliance on low-quality or substandard drugs.

Aside from these usual ‘culprits’, new research shows that infant formula milk could be a major contributor to this challenge too.

The novel study, which was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, indicates that infant formula is associated with an approximately 70 percent higher occurrence of genes associated with antibiotic resistance in the gut of newborns.

The research was carried out at the University of Helsinki. It went further to demonstrate that breastfeeding newborns is associated with a reduced spread of antibiotic-resistant bugs among infants.

This thereby lessens their risk of suffering from drug-resistant infections that are difficult to treat.

“We obtained evidence in this study showing that bacterial genes which confer resistance can already be found in abundance in the gut of newborns and infants even before they are exposed to antibiotics. And feeding infants with formula significantly affects the number of these antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” noted the Finnish and American researchers that jointly worked on the study.

During the study, the researchers analysed the microorganisms in the gut of more than 600 newborns.

Based on the results of the study, the diet of newborns was found to be the primary factor influencing the number of resistant bugs present in the guts of the babies assessed.

Indeed, a considerably higher abundance of resistance genes was seen in children whose diet consisted fully or partially of infant formula, compared to children who were exclusively breastfed or who consumed donated breastmilk.

“The effect of infant formula exposure was markedly more significant than that of antibiotic treatments given to the mother or infant, as well as other factors that usually affect the composition of microorganisms in the gut of babies such as the mode of delivery, the duration of the pregnancy or the infant’s age,” says Dr Katariina Pärnänen, one of the study authors from the University of Helsinki.

Based on past studies, the researchers note that the protective effect of breastmilk against antibiotic resistance is due to the fact that consuming it solely increases the number of useful bugs (known as bifidobacterial) in the baby’s gut which goes a long way in boosting immunity and improving infant health.

In contrast, infants fed entirely or partially with formula were found to have more harmful bacteria (of the Enterobacteriaceae family) and other potential disease-causing bugs in their intestines. This provides a conducive environment for the multiplication and spread of resistant bacteria in their gut.

According to Dr Pärnänen, these findings shed more light on the health effects of breastmilk, which should therefore be encouraged, as per the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

“Breastmilk is the primary source of nutrition for all infants, and its health benefits are of particular importance to premature infants. The new findings indicate that breastfeeding premature and newborn infants also reduces the proliferation of bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics in the gut of infants. This potentially reduces the risk of difficult infections, which I consider a particularly important find due to the ever-increasing prevalence of antibiotic resistance,” she says.

Some scientists specialising in antibiotic resistance believe that the problem will continue to gain in prevalence even if the use of antibiotics were to be radically curtailed.

Consequently, the researchers note that measures not based on reducing antibiotic use can be particularly useful in the fight against superbugs.

“And breastmilk may therefore turn out to be an exceedingly effective weapon for addressing the antibiotic-resistant problem and protecting premature infants and newborns,” they note.

According to the WHO, women are encouraged to exclusively breastfeed their children for the first six months of their life and thereafter complement the milk with additional foods until the baby is two years old.

During the initial six months after delivery, milk is considered the ideal food for infants. It is safe, clean and contains antibodies, which help protect against many common childhood illnesses. It also contains sufficient nutrients required for the effective development of children during that period.

Beyond that, the milk continues to provide up to 50 percent or more of children’s nutritional needs until they are a year old. It then continues to meet 30 percent of the nutritional requirements in the second year of life.

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