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Why breast milk really IS best: Protects babies from deadly meningitis, blood poisoning and pneumonia
A sugar found in breast milk protects newborn babies against a deadly bug, scientists believe.
The naturally occurring compound wards off group B streptococcal infection, new research suggests.
Also known as GBS, it is the most common life-threatening infection in newborn babies in the UK, causing meningitis, blood poisoning and pneumonia.
It claims the life of one baby a week and many others are left with long-term disabilities.
Many pregnant women naturally carry the bug and the number of infections in babies is rising.
However, it hasn’t been understood why some newborns pick up the bug and others remain healthy.
Researchers from Imperial College London studied 183 women in the Gambia and their babies.
They tested the mothers’ DNA for a gene that is linked to blood group and also plays an important role in determining the type of sugar that her breast milk contains.
Tests were also run for GBS.
The team found women with the gene were less likely to have the GBS in their gut, and their babies were also less likely to be infected at birth.
Plus, those babies that were infected found it easier to fight off the germ if their mother’s breast milk contained a sugar called lacto-n-difucohexaose I.
Around half of women are thought to produce the sugar lacto-N-difucohexaose I.
Finally, tests in a dish in the lab showed that breast milk containing the sugar was better at killing the GBS.
Lead researcher, Dr Nicholas Andreas, ‘Although this is early-stage research it demonstrates the complexity of breast milk, and the benefits it may have for the baby.
‘Increasingly, research is suggesting these breast milk sugars may protect against infections in the newborn, as well as boosting a child’s “friendly’ gut bacteria.’
It is thought that the sugar allows ‘friendly’ bacteria to flourish and out-compete any harmful bacteria that may be in the youngster’s gut, such as Group B streptococcus.
The sugar is also thought to act as a decoy which fools the bacteria into thinking it is a type of human cell that can be invaded.
The bacteria latch onto the sugar, only to be excreted by the body.
This may help protect the baby from infection until their own immune system is more mature to fight off the invaders at around six months of age.
In future, pregnant women could be tested for the blood group gene during pregnancy. Those found to be lacking them could be given specific supplements when pregnant and breastfeeding.
It may also be possible to add the ‘right’ sugars to formula milk, however Dr Andreas said it could be hard to get the recipe right.
The NHS advises that breastfeeding gives babies the healthiest start in life, saying it cuts the odds of stomach bugs, chest and ear infections and constipation.
It says that breast-fed babies have lower odds of being obese and while every little helps, it recommends babies are fed exclusively on their mother’s milk for the first six months.
It adds that breastfeeding also benefits women, by cutting their odds of breast and ovarian cancer and helping them bond with their baby.
Despite the advice, Britain has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding Europe, with a quarter of new mothers never attempting it and just one in 100 managing to give their baby nothing but breast milk for the recommended six months.
Dr Andreas’s research is published in the journal Clinical & Translational Immunology.