Immune protection passed on through a mother's milk could last for years longer than expected, according to scientists.
Tests on mice found mothers which had recovered from an infection could pass on their immunity through breast milk with long-lasting effects. In one case, a baby mouse became protected from a worm infection for their entire lives, researchers said. The finding, branded 'remarkable', added another element to their understanding of how mothers affect their children's health. However, they did not say the discovery was a replacement for vaccines and instead suggested it could be used to improve jabs in the future.
Researchers at the University of Cape Town in South Africa said immunity was passed from the mother in different cells than they had first expected.
Resistance against disease was passed in white blood cells rather than in antibodies – bacteria- and virus-destroying proteins – as previously believed. And whereas immunity was thought to only last for the breastfeeding period in order to protect newborns, the benefits lasted much longer in the mice in the study. There is no suggestion it may have the same effect in humans and further trials are needed. Around three quarters of mothers in the UK breastfeed their babies, according to the NHS. The health service said breastfeeding can reduce a baby's risk of infections, diarrhoea and vomiting, cot death, leukaemia or heart disease in adulthood.