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Playgroups cut risk of leukaemia

6th May 2008

Children who go to day-care in their second or third year of life could enjoy greater protection against leukaemia, new research has shown.

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A team of scientists in the United States found that sending children to day-care at an early age seemed to confer some protection against the most common form of childhood leukaemia, in which white blood cells attack red blood cells as if they were invading pathogens.

The mechanism is still unclear, but the team speculated that day-care facilities could expose children to certain infections.

Patricia Buffler, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, said the earlier day-care started the better.

The review of 14 studies showed children who started daycare at age 1 or 2 had the most protection, said Buffler, who led a team presenting their findings to a conference in London.

According to their analysis, children who attend daycare or playgroups have a 30% lower risk of developing the most common form of childhood leukemia compared to those who do not.

The researchers reviewed 14 published studies of nearly 20,000 children worldwide, about a third of whom had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

Buffler said that of the 14 cases studied, there was a level of protection in 12 of them and no protection seen in two.

Day-care either showed greater protection or no effect, with no increased risk found.

She said it was possible that social contact helped guard against leukaemia by exposing children to infections early in life.

Currently, scientists believe that most types of childhood cancer are triggered by a childhood event like an infection, in a child who already carries a specific genetic mutation for the disease.

The latest study adds to the growing body of evidence supporting the role played in early life by infections in stimulating the immune system.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia accounts for about 80% of all childhood leukaemias, affecting 20-30 children out of every million.

While results varied according to the timing, duration and extent of social interaction with other children, the overall results were clear.

Buffler said she hoped the study, the first to pull together all the existing work on the subject, would help other researchers gain a better understanding of the disease, which usually strikes children before the age of five.


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