Growing up in a rural environment can have a positive influence on children’s immune system development, a study by APC Microbiome Ireland (APC) and University College Cork (UCC) has found.

The research highlights how outdoor activities and animal interactions in rural settings can contribute to healthy immune responses in children.

The study found that early life is a crucial phase for immune system development, with exposures shaping immune responses throughout life.

Study lead and UCC professor of immunology Professor Liam O'Mahony highlighted this "immunological window of opportunity" as an important period that sets the course of immune reactions and health risks.

Environmental impact

Focused on South African children aged 15 to 35 months, the study explored links between environmental factors and immune health, particularly in atopic dermatitis (AD) or eczema.

Findings reveal that rural children with outdoor exposure and animal contact develop multiple immune pathways that handle threats, reducing the risk of diseases.

Protective effects

The study highlighted the significance of protective exposures, such as time outdoors and animal interactions, in immune system training.

Researchers found that the immune systems of children living in rural areas possess several ways of identifying and dealing with threats.

The research was conducted by APC Microbiome Ireland and UCC with the University of Cape Town, Swiss Institute of Allergy and Asthma Research, Stanford University and Karolinska Institute.

Important factors

Speaking of the findings of the study, Professor O’Mahony said: “Our study found that many of the important environmental factors were linked with altered exposure to microbes during the first few years of a young child’s life, a crucial stage in shaping a person’s immune system, as it is particularly responsive to environmental exposures including infections, nutrition and microbiome.

“Research such as this can help pave the way for new developments in early disease diagnosis and expediting interventions for more specific and safe modulation of immune activity,” he concluded.