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COVID-19: Isolation increases risk of immunological disorders, immunologist says

Deprivation from ‘microbial world’ said to increase risk for ‘dysregulated immune system’ in developing youth
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As the country continues to weather the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have been concerned with the potential impact that extended isolation could be having on the mental wellness of our youth as continued lockdowns, distanced learning and gathering limits leave children with significantly less time interacting with others and their typical environments.

One viral immunologist is aiming to bring attention to what he calls the “underappreciated effect” our pandemic is having on the physical health of children, as time spent in isolation has been amplifying an already present epidemic of allergies, asthma and even auto-immune diseases in the country.

Byram W. Bridles is an associate professor of viral immunology in the Department of Pathobiology at the University of Guelph and was a recent guest on Kitchener Today with Brian Bourke. Referring to what he calls the “hygiene hypothesis”, Bridles said we typically want to keep our children from being exposed to dangerous pathogens in their environment, while simultaneously allowing them to interact “often, and liberally,” with all the non-dangerous microbes that they can.

According to Bridles, immune systems learn at a young age between what’s dangerous in our environment, and what’s not – both inside and outside the body. With most components of the immune system fully maturing by age six, Bridles said the pandemic’s deprivation from interacting with our “microbial world” is leaving immune systems with less opportunity to get properly educated.

“The risk that holds is that… our children, when they get older, will have an increased potential for their immune system to be dysregulated – and this can lead to their immune system misinterpreting what is safe and what is dangerous,” said Bridles. “This can cause individuals to respond inappropriately to things that are not dangerous at all – and that’s where they can start developing things like allergies or asthma…”

“It can also lead to auto-immune disease, where our immune system inappropriately senses cells in our own body as dangerous and attacks them.”

Bridle said he wasn’t too concerned about these adverse consequences in the early days of the pandemic, as policy makers told the public they'd be looking at a temporary lockdown of around three weeks to flatten the curve and returning to some level of normalcy shortly after. Instead, Bridle said we’re now one year into an “unprecedented lockdown” with children removed from their natural environment – and there’s no end in sight.

According to the immunologist, the only people who can be sure that this prolonged isolation has likely had “no negative impact” on their immune system functions are adults, as Bridle said it’s likely anyone under 18 could potentially be affected. Bridle re-emphasized that most immune system development happens up to age six and those under six years of age are “at greatest risk”. Bridle added that middle-income countries like Canada already have a “declared epidemic” of allergies, asthma and autoimmune diseases because of our society’s continued progress toward greater isolation from our microbial environment.

“We have more prolific use of hand sanitizers and larger and larger cities which isolate us more from the natural environment – this has definitely correlated with these increases in allergies, asthma and autoimmune diseases,” said Bridle. “Now what we’ve done, over the past year, is we’ve amplified this isolation from our natural environment to a degree and length of time that’s never been seen in history.”

Bridle said it’s “frustrating” as an immunologist to see this greater isolation continue, as he said children are generally not at high risk from COVID-19 – however, we’ve been keeping them out of school and their typical environments. While Bridle admits there’s no way of predicting whether a child is going to be negatively affected by this, as he said that’s dependent on complex underlying issues like genetic predispositions. He said there will “definitely” be an increase in incidents of immunological disorders in children going forward.

When asked what the solution to this could be, Bridle said he would have liked to have seen children back in school with “some return to normalcy” much sooner than established. While he admitted there’d likely be more confirmed cases in our schools, Bridle said the term of cases is typically overused as a metric – as most cases occurring in school-aged children are mild.

“And yet, we’re essentially holding them hostage for the sake of protecting a relatively limited number of people who are at high risk of developing severe and potentially lethal disease,” said Bridle. “This is where we have to balance the decision making – I’m not going to be the person to solve this overnight, but we need parents to be fully informed and we need policy makers to be fully informed so they can make the best possible decisions for our children – and I’m not convinced it’s keeping them locked up.”

Bridle said he feels we certainly “erred too much on the side of caution” in our COVID-19 response, though he added that he has “no problem” with how the country initially reacted to the outbreak of the virus. While he said any immunologist would have said putting children in extended isolation would put them at greater risk of developing auto-immune disorders, no one had predicted that isolation would last longer than a year.

“Every time decisions have been made to keep the lockdown going, it was always with the understanding and hope it’d be a short while longer. We’ve strung together so many of these ‘short while longer’ statements now that it’s stretched out to a year.”

While Bridle admits that none of this damage was done intentionally or with the outright understanding that there’d be adverse effects on our children, he said it’s added up to what will likely be a substantial problem that won’t reveal itself for years to come.

“What upsets me is that we do have young children who will be relegated to a life now of dealing with allergies, asthma or autoimmune diseases – and a large number of them would not have had we not locked them down like we have.”

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