Allergies are a major cause of illness among many children in Kenya.
They are usually caused by food (such as eggs, meat or groundnuts), substances in the environment (like dust or plant pollen) and certain medicines.
Some of the common symptoms of allergic reactions that cause discomfort in children include skin rashes, hives, headaches, stuffy nose, shortness of breath, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and other digestive problems.
These symptoms vary from child to child and may be mild, moderate or severe.
The severe cases, which are a nightmare for parents, may lead to a life-threatening emergency (known as anaphylaxis) that can result in death without urgent medical attention.
To avert the condition, doctors usually advise parents to refrain from giving children foods or exposing them to substances that trigger their allergic reactions.
Doctors can also prescribe preventive shots to guard against environmental causes of allergies that may be difficult for some people to avoid - like dust and pollen.
But instead of ‘waiting’ to manage or deal with allergies once they occur, health experts note that mothers can play a key role – through their diets - in minimising the risk of the condition among their offspring
A new study published in the Nutrients Journal shows that intake of cow milk by lactating mothers can minimise the chances of their offspring suffering from allergies.
The research - conducted by researchers from the Sweden based Chalmers University of Technology - shows that mothers who drink more cow milk during breastfeeding reduce the risk of their children developing allergies.
The findings were deduced from a survey research that assessed the eating habits of more than 500 Swedish women and the occurrence of allergies among their children at one year of age.
Based on the World Health Organisation guidelines, mothers are advised to breastfeed their children exclusively for the first six months of their lives. During this period, the diet of the mother is extremely important as it influences the quality and health impacts of the milk to the child.
"We found that mothers of healthy one-year-old children had consumed more cow milk during breastfeeding than mothers of allergic babies of the same age,” said Mia Stråvik, the lead author of the study and doctoral student in the Division of Food Science at Chalmers University of Technology.
There are many factors that contribute to children becoming susceptible to allergies. Some of them – like genetic predisposition or family history – cannot be controlled.
"But diet is a factor where parents themselves can have direct influence,” stated Stråvik.
She pointed out that since allergy to milk protein is not common among adults, most women can consume milk and dairy products themselves without an issue.
The researchers noted that there are several possible explanations as to why cow milk intake among pregnant women contributes to a reduction in child allergies.
“One possible reason may be that the milk in the mother's diet contains substances that stimulate the maturity of the immune system,” said Ann-Sofie Sandberg, a professor in Food and Nutritional Science at Chalmers University of Technology who was also an author of the study.
She stated: "In a child's early development, there is a time window where stimulation of the immune system is necessary for the child to develop tolerance to different foods."
Based on a concept known as the Hygiene Hypothesis, Sandberg added that early contact with various microorganisms (germs in the environment) can function as a kick-start for a child's immune system.
"But, with the lower prevalence of microorganisms nowadays in our more hygienic society, substances taken in through the mother's diet can be another way to stimulate the maturity of the immune system," she says.
Previous studies linking cow milk in a mother's diet to a reduced risk of allergies in children were mostly based on questionnaire responses - both in terms of eating habits and the presence of allergies.
Since questionnaire responses are highly subjective, the accuracy of findings of these past studies could not be ascertained.
"But in this new study, we were able to actually verify the women's reported intake of milk and milk products through biomarkers in their blood and breast milk. The biomarkers are two fatty acids formed in the cow's stomach, which are specific to dairy products," said Stråvik.
"Furthermore, all the cases of allergy in children were diagnosed by a doctor specialising in child allergies."
During the study, more than 500 mothers gave detailed accounts of their eating habits on three occasions - in the 34th week of the pregnancy, one month after delivery and four months after birth.
Thereafter, at one year of age, the children were medically examined and all cases of food allergy, atopic eczema and asthma were identified.
Of the 508 children included in the study, 23 percent had allergies of some type (including non-food based) at the age of one year.
Based on the results of the study, the researchers were able to establish that there was indeed a clear connection between the mother's intake of milk and dairy products, and the smaller incidence of food allergy in their children.
"No matter how we looked at, and interpreted the data, we came to the same conclusion," states Malin Barman, a co-author of the study from the Chalmers University of Technology.