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Does milk fight bowel cancer

The study was carried out by researchers from University of Otago Medical School, New Zealand. Funding was provided by Genesis Oncology Trust, the Dean’s Bequest Funds of the Dunedin School of Medicine, the Gisborne East Coast Cancer Research Trust and the Director’s Cancer Research Trust. The research was published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Epidemiology. This was a case-control study in New Zealand that compared a group of adults with bowel cancer, and a group without bowel cancer, and looked at whether they drank milk at school. School milk was freely available in most schools in New Zealand until 1967 when the government programme was stopped. Many schools in the Southland region stopped free milk as long ago as 1950.

Case-control studies are appropriate for looking at whether people with and without a disease have had a particular exposure (milk in this case). The difficulty is in accounting for all potential confounding factors, particularly other health and lifestyle factors, which could be related to both diet and bowel cancer risk, for example regular childhood milk consumption could be a reflection of a ‘healthy’ diet and other healthy lifestyle behaviours that may reduce risk of cancer. In addition, when examining such a specific dietary factor – ie milk consumed in school – it is difficult to account for all possible milk or other dairy products consumed outside of school.

In this case-control study, 562 adults (aged 30 to 69) with newly diagnosed bowel cancer were identified from the New Zealand Cancer Registry in 2007. For a control group, 571 age-matched adults without cancer were randomly selected from the electoral register. All participants were mailed a questionnaire that asked about any previous illness, use of aspirin or dietary supplements in childhood, participation in school milk programmes, other childhood milk consumption, childhood diet (including other milk and dairy), smoking, alcohol consumption prior to 25 years of age, screening tests for bowel cancer, family history of cancer, education and sociodemographic characteristics. Childhood weight and height were not questioned. For school milk consumption they were specifically asked:

  • Whether they drank school milk
  • How many half-pint bottles they drank a week
  • What age they first drank school milk
  • When they stopped drinking school milk

Statistical risk associations between school milk participation and cancer were calculated. The calculations took into account several risk factors for bowel cancer risk including age, sex, ethnicity and family history.

What were the basic results?

Data on school milk consumption was available for 552 cases and 569 controls. As expected, people who started school before 1967 were more likely to have had free school milk than those who began school after 1968. Seventy-eight percent of cases participated in the school milk programme compared with 82% of controls. School milk consumption was associated with a 30% reduced risk of developing bowel cancer (odds ratio 0.70, 95% confidence interval 0.51 to 0.96).

When looking at the effect of number of bottles consumed per week they found that compared with no bottles, five bottles per week was associated with 32% significantly decreased risk, and 10 or more bottles with 61% significantly decreased risk. However, there was no significant association with one to four bottles or six to nine bottles. The researchers found a similar trend when the total school consumption of milk was compared with no consumption: 1,200-1,599 bottles was associated with 38% significantly decreased risk; 1,600-1,799 with 43% decreased risk; and 1,800 or more bottles associated with 38% significantly decreased risk. There was no significant association with fewer than 1,200 bottles. The researchers calculated that for every 100 half-pint bottles consumed at school there was a 2.1% reduction in the risk of bowel cancer. Outside of school, there was a significantly reduced risk of bowel cancer with more than 20 dairy products a week compared with none to nine dairy products a week.

The researchers conclude that their national case-control study ‘provides evidence that school milk consumption was associated with a reduction in the risk of adult colorectal cancer in New Zealand. Furthermore, a dose-dependent relation was evident’. This study has strengths in its relatively large size, its reliable and nationally representative identification of cases and controls, and its thorough data collection. However, the conclusion that school milk consumption is associated with a reduced risk of bowel cancer in adulthood must be interpreted in light of a number of considerations:

The analysis took into account established risk factors for bowel cancer including age, sex, ethnicity and family history. However, many other potential confounders were not considered, including diet, physical activity, overweight and obesity, smoking or alcohol consumption. Diet in particular has been implicated in bowel cancer risk, with diets high in saturated fat, red meat and processed foods and low in fibre, fruit and vegetables thought to increase risk. Potentially, any of these lifestyle behaviours could be confounding the relationship between school milk consumption and bowel cancer and regular childhood milk consumption could be a reflection of a ‘healthy’ diet and other healthy lifestyle behaviours that reduce risk of cancer. When looking at the effect of number of bottles consumed per week, the researchers found that, compared with no bottles, five bottles were associated with 32% significantly decreased risk and 10 or more bottles with 61% significantly decreased risk. However, there was no significant association with one to four bottles or six to nine bottles. Therefore, the trend here is not very clear. Particularly as only 16 cases and 31 controls drank 10 or more bottles a week, statistical comparison between such small numbers should be viewed with caution. With many food questionnaires there is the potential for recall bias. For example, adults may have difficulty remembering how many bottles of school milk they drank many years before. When estimating their average weekly amount, it is highly possible that this could be inaccurate or that their consumption varied slightly from week to week and year to year. Particularly when researchers were using this response and combining it with the number of weeks in the school year and their total years at school to give a total number of bottles consumed at school (figures in 100s or 1,000s), there is the possibility of being incorrectly categorised. Hence, there may be less reliability when calculating risk according to the category of total milk bottles consumed. Cancer prevalence, and particularly environmental and lifestyle risk factors for cancer, can vary between countries. These findings in New Zealand may not be represented elsewhere. Of note, the researchers acknowledge that a cohort study in the UK found the opposite: increased childhood dairy consumption was associated with increased risk of bowel cancer. Case-control studies are most appropriate for looking at rare diseases, where you would expect there to be only a small number of cases developing among a large number of people. In the case of bowel cancer, which is common, the slightly more reliable cohort design could have also been used, where children who drank milk at school and those who didn’t were followed over time to see if they developed cancer. However, such a cohort would consequently need extensive long-term follow-up.

The possible association between milk/dairy consumption, or calcium intake, in childhood, or in later years, is worthy of further study. However, from this study alone, it cannot be concluded that school milk prevents bowel cancer later in life.

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Newborns with low vitamin D levels at increased risk for respiratory infections

The vitamin D levels of newborn babies appear to predict their risk of respiratory infections during infancy and the occurrence of wheezing during early childhood, but not the risk of developing asthma. Results of a study in the January 2011 issue of Pediatrics support the theory that widespread vitamin D deficiency contributes to risk of infections.

“Our data suggest that the association between vitamin D and wheezing, which can be a symptom of many respiratory diseases and not just asthma, is largely due to respiratory infections,” says Carlos Camargo, MD, DrPH, of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), who led the study. “Acute respiratory infections are a major health problem in children. For example, bronchiolitis – a viral illness that affects small airway passages in the lungs – is the leading cause of hospitalization in U.S. infants.”

Although vitamin D is commonly associated with its role in developing and maintaining strong bones, recent evidence suggests that it is also critical to the immune system. Vitamin D is produced by the body in response to sunlight, and achieving adequate levels in winter can be challenging, especially in regions with significant seasonal variation in sunlight. Previous studies by Camargo's team found that children of women who took vitamin D supplements during pregnancy were less likely to develop wheezing during childhood. The current study was designed to examine the relationship between the actual blood levels of vitamin D of newborns and the risk of respiratory infection, wheezing and asthma.

The researchers analyzed data from the New Zealand Asthma and Allergy Cohort Study, which followed more than 1,000 children in the cities of Wellington and Christchurch. Midwives or study nurses gathered a range of measures, including samples of umbilical cord blood, from newborns whose mothers enrolled them in the study. The mothers subsequently answered questionnaires – which among other items asked about respiratory and other infectious diseases, the incidence of wheezing, and any diagnosis of asthma – 3 and 15 months later and then annually until the children were 5 years old. The cord blood samples were analyzed for levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25OHD) – considered to be the best measure of vitamin D status.

Cord blood samples were available from 922 newborns in the study cohort, and more than 20 percent of them had 25OHD levels less than 25 nmol/L, which is considered very low. The average level of 44 nmol/L would still be considered deficient – some believe that the target level for most individuals should be as high as 100 nmol/L – and lower levels were more common among children born in winter, of lower socioeconomic status and with familial histories of asthma and smoking. By the age of 3 month, infants with 25OHD levels below 25 nmol/L were twice as like to have developed respiratory infections as those with levels of 75 nmol/L or higher.

Survey results covering the first five years of the participants' lives showed that, the lower the neonatal 25OHD level, the higher the cumulative risk of wheezing during that period. But no significant association was seen between 25OHD levels and a physician diagnosis of asthma at age 5 years. Some previous studies had suggested that particularly high levels of vitamin D might increase the risk for allergies, but no such association was seen among study participants with the highest 25OHD levels. Camargo notes that very few children in this study took supplements; their vitamin D status was determined primarily by exposure to sunlight.

An associate professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Camargo notes that the study results do not mean that vitamin D levels are unimportant for people with asthma. “There's a likely difference here between what causes asthma and what causes existing asthma to get worse. Since respiratory infections are the most common cause of asthma exacerbations, vitamin D supplements may help to prevent those events, particularly during the fall and winter when vitamin D levels decline and exacerbations are more common. That idea needs to be tested in a randomized clinical trial, which we hope to do next year.”

Co-authors of the Pediatrics paper are Ravi Thadhani, MD, and Janice Espinola, MPH, from MGH; Tristram Ingham, MBChB, Kristin Wickens, PhD, and Julian Crane, FRACP, from University of Otaga, Wellington, New Zealand; Karen Silvers, PhD, Michael Epton, PhD, FRACP, and Philip Pattemore, MD, FRACP, from University of Otago, Christchurch, NZ; and Ian Town, DM, from University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ. The study was supported by grants from the Health Research Council of New Zealand, the David and Cassie Anderson Bequest and the MGH Center for D-receptor Activation Research.

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Allergy study highlights risks for children

A lack of testing for food allergies is putting children's health at risk and could lead to life threatening reactions, a study has found. The study, Adverse reactions to food in New Zealand children age 0-5 years, was published in the New Zealand Medical Journal. It looked at a cross-section of 110 children who had attended Plunket clinics. It found 44 had experienced an adverse reaction to food, but only four had been clinically evaluated. Those children were found to have adverse reactions to food allergens, including a life threatening peanut allergy. Two others had been hospitalised with systemic symptoms, but neither had undergone testing for food allergy. “If these children have food allergies, they remain at risk for continued and possibly severe reactions,” the study said.

Parents modifying children's diets or breastfeeding mothers cutting out food without advice from a physician or dietician could also have adverse affects, it said. “Failure to thrive is commonly seen in children experiencing FA (food allergy) as a result of multiple foods being removed from their diet.” The data indicated adverse reactions to food were a public health concern and may be under investigated — even when symptoms were severe, the study said.

“There is an urgent need to investigate the epidemiology, diagnosis, and prevention of FA (food allergy) in New Zealand to reduce morbidity, improve child health, and reduce the burden to health costs.” Thirty-three of the children were reported to have eczema. Ten had worsening symptoms two hours after eating, the study said. Symptoms improved in six of them with dietary changes. Doctors had prescribed topical therapy for 18 of those children with eczema, but symptoms had persisted.

“One possible explanation for this observation is undiagnosed FA (food allergy). Without testing, allergic triggers for eczema could not be identified in these participants.” Further investigation of food allergy as the cause of eczema was warranted, the study said.

Adverse reactions to food worldwide in children was an increasing concern and food allergy was as common in New Zealand as in other countries, the study said. The study was conducted by the Auckland District Health Board and led by Associate Professor Rohan Ameratunga and lead researcher Dr Christine Crooks. Allergy New Zealand chief executive Penny Jorgensen said the study was “really disturbing” because it highlighted that many children were not being assessed for food allergy. The risk was the potential for life-threatening reactions, she said.

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