Last updated 7:22PM ET
August 23, 2017
WIUM Local
WIUM Local
The Hygiene Hypothesis
David Elliott (left) and John Fleming
(wium) - It's that time of year when some people struggle with allergies. It's a problem that is not common worldwide. In fact, researchers have found autoimmune system problems in general are most prevalent in well-developed countries.

The theory is called the Hygiene Hypothesis. The idea is that a lack of certain parasites in the body causes the immune system to overreact to minor things such as pollen.

The theory applies to more serious medical issues too. For example, David Elliott of the University of Iowa is using helminths in studies to treat inflammatory bowel disease.

"There are a lot of different parasites and we're focusing on one specific type, which is the parasitic worms," said Elliott. "They have unique ways of altering the immune system. These worms evolved with people and they had to evolve with our immune systems."

Another researcher working with helminths is John Fleming of the University of Wisconsin - Madison. He is studying whether they can help patients with multiple sclerosis.

Fleming acknowledged patients can be a bit squeamish about the idea of using parasitic worms.

"We call it the 'yuck factor,'" said Fleming. "But if you explain the science, people get through that and then there is a good acceptance."

Fleming said the idea that an excessively sterile environment might cause the immune system to react in abnormal ways dates back around 100 years. He also said researchers are not suggesting that people live in unsanitary conditions.

"We don't propose that we go back to the dark ages when there were sewers everywhere. (The idea is) to compensate for the excessively sterile world by introducing a harmless bug that might do it," said Fleming.

Elliott concurs.

"With the current levels of hygiene comes a lot of benefits. We've decreased a lot of disease states," said Elliott. "There are a whole lot of wonderful things that come with it. Unfortunately, there may be a couple bad things that come with it and that's what we're trying to address."

Fleming said the studies being done are strictly regulated and there is scientific basis in their research.

"We're trying to find out what the actual changes are in the immune system so that if it works we know why works. If it doesn't work, we know why it doesn't work," said Fleming. "This is not something you should do at home on your own."

Elliott and Fleming were featured speakers at the 62nd Annual Midwestern Conference of Parasitologists, which was held at Western Illinois University.

You can listen to an interview with them by clicking on the audio button.

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