(LONDON) - Supplements of friendly bacteria could halve the chances of infants developing eczema, an incurable skin disease some babies never outgrow, scientists have found.
Capsules of lactobacillus GG, a strain found in ``live'' yogurt, are popular in Europe, but evidence that they do any good has been weak.
``These figures are remarkable and, if confirmed in other studies and applicable to other allergic diseases, probiotics would represent an important therapeutic advance,'' said Dr. Simon Murch of University College, London, who was not involved in the research.
The findings will be published Saturday in The Lancet medical journal.
Allergic conditions such as asthma and eczema, linked to failures of the immune system, have been steadily increasing in the developed world.
Many scientists believe such disorders are on the rise partly because babies aren't exposed these days to as many germs as they used to be and their immune systems are therefore blunted from an early age.
Lactobacillus GG belongs to a class of supplements known as probiotics. They are thought to improve the balance of germs in the intestines, which proponents believe may enhance the immune system.
The prevalence of eczema varies widely worldwide. About 65 percent of children are clear of the condition by the time they reach their mid-teens.
In the United States, 10 percent of infants and 3 percent of adults have it.
In mild forms the skin is dry, hot and itchy; in more severe cases the skin becomes broken, raw and bleeding. It is normally treated with moisturizer, antibiotics and steroids.
``These kids suffer a lot. It's very encouraging that there may be a safe, simple and cheap way to manipulate gut flora that lowers the frequency of eczema,'' said Dr. Dean Metcalfe, chief of allergic diseases at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who was unconnected with the research.
Eczema is exacerbated by staphylococcus bacteria, Metcalfe noted. He theorized that the probiotic may prevent the growth of the germ in the intestines. Children with eczema tend to have a leaky gut, where germs can seep out and travel through the body, he said.
In the study by scientists at the National Public Health Institute in Finland, 159 pregnant women with a family history of allergies were randomly given either lactobacillus GG or fake pills twice a day for about three weeks before they gave birth. After they delivered, breastfeeding mothers could take the capsules for six months, otherwise the children were fed the contents of the capsules mixed with water for the same amount of time. The two methods delivered the same concentration of the bacteria.
The babies were examined at three, six, 12, 18 and 24 months. Twenty-three percent of the babies fed the probiotic developed eczema by the age 2, compared with 46 percent of the infants given the fake supplement.
``We don't have that European thing with (probiotics); there's very low consumption in the United States,'' said Paul A, Lachance, executive director of the Nutraceuticals Institute at Rutgers University in New Jersey. ``This may awaken the American interest in probiotics.''
The study was paid for by several independent Finnish medical research foundations.