Reduced exposure to infectious disease in early life may be a contributing factor to the development of type 1 diabetes, according to a new study.
Incidence of type 1 diabetes is increasing by an estimated 3% every year. One of the many theories behind this rise is the hygiene hypothesis, which suggests that encounters between the developing immune system and micro-organisms such as bacteria and parasites are part of human evolution and could therefore protect against autoimmune disease .
To investigate this hypothesis, scientists from the University of Malta used data from three major international studies to correlate type 1 diabetes rates by country with mortality from infectious disease .
They found that rates of type 1 diabetes were highest in countries with low mortality from infectious disease, indicating that type 1 diabetes prevalence may be linked to infectious disease burden.
Lead researcher Professor Stephen Fava said: “The global rise in type 1 diabetes is an unexplained phenomenon. Many suggest that the exposure, or rather the lack of exposure, to infectious disease when young might be linked to the development of autoimmunity.”
“These data provide support for the notion that the immune system can somehow become disordered and attack the body’s own cells if it is not trained by regular exposure to micro-organisms – the so called hygiene hypothesis.”
He stressed, however, that while the study supports this hypothesis, it does not prove it, adding that further research is required to identify other environmental factors that may be associated with rising type 1 diabetes rates .
The study findings were presented at the Society for Endocrinology annual conference in Harrogate, England.

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