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University of Rochester Medical Center researcher asks: Why don't Mennonites get Allergies?

We have been touting the research efforts of the University of Rochester Medical Center in previous issues of our e-newsletter and on our Web site. The leader of this particular project, Kirsi Jarvinen-Seppo MD, discusses the ways and means of she is using to better understand the development of life-threatening allergies in America.

Mennonite kids in field

University of Rochester Medical Center researcher asks: Why don't Mennonites get Allergies?

By Justin Murphy
November 20th, 2017

Old Order Mennonites sacrifice a lot of 21st century conveniences: electricity, motorized vehicles, modern dress and entertainment. One thing they don't need to worry about, though, is peanut allergies.

Allergies of any kind, in fact, are nearly nonexistent in Mennonite communities like the one in Penn Yan, Yates County, and they are five to 10 times less likely to develop asthma. Now, a University of Rochester Medical Center researcher has a $2.4 million grant to better understand why that is.

Kirsi Jarvinen-Seppo, an associate professor of pediatric allergy and immunology, will compare the early immune system development in Old Order Mennonite infants with that of suburban Rochester babies who are at increased risk for allergies. The hypothesis is that the Mennonites ingest and inhale certain farm-life microorganisms that boost their immunity.

That is known as the "microbiome hypothesis," Jarvinen-Seppo said, and she is interested in learning more about it.

There has been a great deal of research on immunity among farm families in general; Old Order Mennonites are an even more refined interest. They typically consume raw milk, have large families, deliver babies at home and seldom use antibiotics.

Kirsi Jarvinen-Seppo
Kirsi Jarvinen-Seppo (Photo: URMC)

"We need to do this study to understand what it is about farm life and (its) components that are protective against allergies," she said. "What immune compartment is it impacting in what kind of way? Ultimately as we find those mechanisms for protection, we may be able to target some specific interventions that would have the same effect."

The study follows two earlier, less invasive investigations in the same community. This one will involve blood, stool, saliva, skin and breast milk samples from infants and their mothers, both before and after delivery.

The work is supported by the National Institutes of Health and will last five years. Jarvinen-Seppo is still recruiting local families; women who are pregnant and either have allergies themselves or have older children with allergies can call (585) 275-8991 for more information on participating.

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