June 1, 2001--Anyone who has had a child in day care is familiar with the scenario of colds, runny nose, stomach flu, and other infections being passed around from child to child, making for both miserable kids and days lost from work for mom and dad. But there may be at least some help on the horizon from an unusual source.
A study being published in the June 2 issue of the British Medical Journal suggests that giving kids milk laced with bacteria may help prevent stomach and respiratory symptoms and reduce the need for frequent antibiotics. The latter is becoming more important because giving kids too many antibiotics too early in life could cause them to become resistant to the drugs when they get older.
Bacteria-laced milk? For kids?
It doesn't exactly sound appetizing, but the Finnish researchers who conducted the study used a colorless, odorless 'friendly' bacteria that was put in regular milk and given to half the children in the study three times a day, five days a week for 7 months. The other half received their usual milk with no bacteria added. The type of bacteria used in the study, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, has previously been shown to prevent diarrhea when children are taking antibiotics as well as prevent traveler's diarrhea in adults.
The concept of adding friendly bacteria to food is called probiotics. The purpose is for the bacteria to travel into the intestines and live there to serve as protection against infections that can cause diarrhea or other stomach-related problems. Essentially, the bacteria go to work crowding out the harmful bugs that try to establish territory in your gut. Various types of Lactobacillus are what is added to milk to make yogurt.
In the new study, the researchers were attempting to use the bacteria for an additional purpose: to protect against upper respiratory tract infections such as those that affect the middle ear and the sinuses as well as lower respiratory tract infections such as those that cause bronchitis and pneumonia.
According to the Finnish researchers, led by nutrition expert Katja Hatakka, the experiment was a success. Among 282 children aged 1-6 years who drank the bacteria-laced milk, there were 17% fewer upper respiratory tract infections and lower respiratory tract infections. There was also a reduction of 19% in use of antibiotics compared with the other 289 children who received regular milk. Children in the bacteria-laced milk group also missed fewer days of day care due to illness.
Hatakka and colleagues conclude the results support the notion that probiotics are "an easy and acceptable method" for preventing common, transmissible illnesses among children.
Though not overwhelming, the results are intriguing enough that larger, longer studies should be conducted, writes Christine Wanke, MD, associate professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.
Wanke, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study, suggests that future studies should attempt to determine the best probiotic for kids because there may be other beneficial bacteria that work just as well or better.
One of the most encouraging findings of the study is that kids who drank the bacteria-laced milk experienced no serious adverse effects.
But that does not mean that all probiotics are safe and effective, according to another expert.
"All this study tells us is that Lactobacillus GG, if you put it in milk, will reduce the risk of kids getting sick in day care centers," says John A. Vanderhoof, MD, who spoke with WebMD about the study.
In his study, Vanderhoof, of the University of Nebraska, found that Lactobacillus GGused as a probiotic reduced the incidence of diarrhea in children on antibiotics by two-thirds. He says the only side effects he has ever seen is a small percentage of children experiencing constipation from the bacteria.
"There are some other strains that are more gas producers and will give people more problems with gas -- each one of them is different -- but there don't seem to be any serious or severe effects," says Vanderhoof.
He says the U.S. is lagging behind Europe and Asia in research into probiotics for both kids and adults.
"If you go to Germany you can probably choose from 10 different probiotic yogurts," Vanderhoof says. "We have very few of them here, and it's going to take some time for us to catch up."