Early childhood exposures and a healthy life

I was busy over the weekend (and disgusted by the hot, nasty weather that will not die), so I don’t have a lot on tap for today. Luckily, though, there’s some interesting stuff elsewhere that’s already written up–thoughtfully saving me some of the trouble.

I discuss the link between infectious and “chronic” disease with some regularity on this site. I think it’s a fascinating area; perhaps oversold by some, perhaps over-criticized by others, but certainly a hot topic and an interesting direction for research in microbiology. This weekend’s New York Times had a new story that touched on the link. (More below…)

The NY Times story can be found here; it’s a nice overview of many avenues of research converging to show that our health is strongly influenced by our exposures in the first few years of life, or even in the womb. Highlighted are a few studies that have taken a historical approach, looking at morbidity and mortality among soldiers from the Civil war and generations that followed, for example, or among newborns during times of famine or pestilence (such as the 1918 influenza pandemic) and looking at how they fared as far as chronic disease development later in life. Fascinating stuff. Future Pundit has a very nice analysis of some of the high points, so I’ll point you over there and won’t re-invent the wheel here.

After reading the story, though, it may make you wonder–why don’t we have a substantial, long-term, cross-populational study of just these effects–nutrition, environmental exposures, infectious agents, etc.–during these critical early years? Doesn’t that sound like a good way to really investigate some of these links between exposure to various agents and subsequent disease development? Well, one was in the works for the better part of 6 years, but was recently axed due to Bush budget cuts.

The fate of a much-anticipated long-term study on the effect of the environment on children’s health is in jeopardy, a potential victim of the tight federal budget.

The $3.2 billion National Children’s Health Study, launched with much fanfare in 2000, was intended to follow 100,000 children over 20 years, and was set to begin recruiting in late 2007.

But the president’s budget request for fiscal year 2007 directs the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the lead agency in the study, to shut down all operations, including a pilot study of 900 expectant mothers that is already under way.


The study is intended to track the effects of different environmental factors–from chemical exposures to parental nurturing styles and television viewing–from the womb through adulthood. The vast database would then help researchers fathom the causes of birth defects, autism, diabetes and a host of other childhood disorders. The data would be made freely available to researchers.

Because the study would recruit children even before their birth, the first research questions address prenatal risks, such as whether low thyroid activity in the mother leads to cognitive defects and autism in her child, and whether inflammation or infection of the uterus can lead to premature birth.

Smaller studies could address some of these questions, but “there are a large number of conditions that are so infrequent that you can’t study them unless you collect a very large sample,” says Scheidt. For common conditions, such as obesity or asthma, he adds, a large sample also allows researchers to examine which of the many risks contribute to the disease.

“Ending the study before it begins would be a tragedy for our children,” adds Nancy Chuda, president of the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit advocacy group. “The only way we can prevent these illnesses is to learn what causes them.”

So, a study that could provide some critical insight into all kinds of diseases that have been linked to exposures during childhood isn’t deemed worth funding. Leaving them behing must be OK.

Image from http://www.totalcatholic.com/universe/oneadmin/_files/Image/july_2006/Bush-and-baby.jpg

Join the Conversation


  1. I’m thrilled to contact my members of Congress when some outrage like this occurs, but I need a little guidance as to what to say and what to ask for.

  2. You can probably assume that the corporate political contributors of our deceitful President and his dissemblers had some great influence in cancelling this study. There is a story in USA today about such a lobbyist named Richard Berman who has been called sleazy and sophmoric by a director of consumer group and Dr. Evil by a union official.

  3. No surprise it was axed — if it intended to quantify how much of the variation in adult outcomes was accounted for by nutrition, pathogens, etc., it could only do so by also quantifying how much variation is accounted for by genetic effects — and as we all know, genes don’t affect the brain, duh! Well, for some bizarre reason, it’s OK to suggest that genes — the building blocks of LIFE — are involved in KILLING you slowly (mental diseases), while infectious causes aren’t given center stage. And on the other hand, it’s not OK to suggest that genes are involved in things that help you survive & reproduce — like intelligence (IQ) — since “everyone knows” that most / all IQ differences are due to environmental differences. Funny world we live in, huh!

    On a related note, could you recommend a good intro textbook on medical microbiology? Or what journals / authors I should start out with? My university library doesn’t have a lot, so I’m desperate! My primary concern is with neuro-microbiology — considering how sexily Latinate that sounds, you figure the neuro dudes would’ve long ago founded a field & journal by that name! But no luck.

  4. I think no child left behind is really a code for teaching religion and id in the school system so all kids KNOW about Jesus and are able to be raptured rather than left behind.

    My lame attempt at humour tinged with a dose of cynicism.

  5. Let’s all get some perspective here.
    Would you take away Paris Hilton’s estate tax cut to fund something like this?
    I thought so.

  6. If a study that show hows kids get sick actually happened, it would mean regulations against what made them sick in the first place. Thus get rid of the study prevents regulation.

    Mission accomplished.

  7. Excellent post!! I knew vaguely about the study but I had no idea it was being axed. The last time I heard something this big was being cut was the superconducting supercollider (SSC) in Texas…I was devastated. 3.2B over 20 years is 160M a year on average. That’s, what…like 2 brand new bridges under Halliburton contracts in Iraq (to replace the ones we bombed)?

    So thinking like a good Republican legistlator these days: “Let me get this straight–you want me to vote on spending for a huge study approved during the Clinton administration that will yield results well after I’m not in Congress anymore and won’t buy me a single vote?”
    I think
    Is a good place to start online for serious study. I doubt you will find anything substantive on ‘neuromicrobiology.’ Of the microorganisms that cause nervous system diseases, these aren’t really the focus of neurologists, neuroscientists, or neurosurgeons, as the CNS/PNS is just another tissue tropism for these bugs. The essential science of the disease lies with the pathogens themselves; the treatment once infected or recover afterwards (if at all) is something else. I think you’d have better luck thinking in terms of studying pathogens that affect the nervous system.

  8. You can probably assume that the corporate political contributors of our deceitful President and his dissemblers had some great influence in cancelling this study. There is a story in USA today about such a lobbyist named Richard Berman who has been called sleazy and sophmoric by a director of consumer group and Dr. Evil by a union official.

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