Science Gazette

Infections later in life are connected to the first viral infection

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According to study, asymptomatic viral infections in the early days and weeks of a baby’s birth are linked to an increased risk of respiratory infections later in life.

Viruses were discovered to interact with babies’ immune systems and microbiomes (the community of bacteria that reside in our bodies) in a manner that altered both a child’s risk and the number of infections that followed.

Experts think that preventing such early viral infections, or boosting immune systems with carefully tailored probiotics, might help to avoid this danger.

Many factors may affect a newborn’s microbiome, including the birth route (vaginal or caesarean), nursing, medications, and the hospital atmosphere.

Respiratory infections are a significant public health issue. They are one of the three primary causes of doctor visits and hospital admissions in the early years of life, accounting for 15% of all fatalities in children under the age of five worldwide.

As part of the Microbiome Utrecht Infant Study, which has been continuing for six years, researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the University Medical Center Utrecht studied mucosa samples collected from inside the nostrils of 114 newborns at different stages of life.

The researchers looked at the gene activity of the newborns’ nasal mucosa, which is the tissue that borders the nasal cavity, as well as the microorganisms that live in the lining of the nose and any viruses that infected them.

When a viral infection was discovered in the first days after delivery, the researchers discovered that particular mucosal genes were activated, corresponding with a shift in the microbiome composition, favouring the proliferation of potentially dangerous microorganisms.

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Over the first year of life, the researchers discovered alterations in immune system genes in afflicted kids in response to early viruses, particularly in genes connected with interferons (proteins secreted by immune cells to protect against viruses).

Experts believe that an early initial viral infection causes interferon-related gene activity, which creates a pro-inflammatory milieu that keeps newborns vulnerable to subsequent infections.

The findings were reported in the journal Nature Microbiology. The cohort research was conducted in close cooperation with Spaarne Hospital in the Netherlands. Scotland’s Chief Scientist Office and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research supported the research.

“We were shocked to find viral infections occur so early in life, and go mainly unreported, presumably because the infant’s immune system is in what is known as a state of tolerance after delivery,” said Professor Debby Bogaert, Chair of Paediatric Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Regardless, these infections seem to have an impact on normal immunological development, which is crucial to know.

“An infant’s microbiome does not begin to form until after delivery. Limiting virus exposure in the initial days and weeks of birth may be critical for good immunological and microbiota development, as well as long-term respiratory health.”

“Although more research is needed to confirm the causality of our findings, the data from this study indicate that early-life encounters with respiratory viruses — especially during the first days of life — may set the tone for subsequent non-beneficial host-microbe interactions, which are linked to infection risk and possibly long-term respiratory health,” said Dr Wouter de Steenhuijsen, post-doctoral investigator at University Medical Center Utrecht.

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