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Breastfeeding could cut children’s leukaemia risk

Do more to increase understanding of social acceptability of breastfeeding, say researchers

Louise Prime

Friday, 05 June 2015

Being breastfed for at least six months could cut children’s risk of leukaemia by almost a fifth, according to researchers in Israel. In their study*, published in JAMA this week, they called for better education of both healthcare professionals and the public about the health benefits of breastfeeding, to increase its social acceptance.

Researchers led from the University of Haifa conducted a meta-analysis of data from 18 earlier studies, published between January 1960 and December 2014, that had researched the association between breastfeeding (including information on duration of breastfeeding) and childhood leukaemia.

They found that compared with no or shorter breastfeeding, any breastfeeding for six months or longer was associated with a 19% lower risk for childhood leukaemia. They also conducted a separate meta-analysis of 15 studies, which indicated that having ever been breastfed was associated with an 11% lower risk for childhood leukaemia compared with never having been breastfed – although the definition of ‘never breastfed’ differed between studies.

They wrote: “All meta-analyses of subgroups of the 18 studies showed similar associations. Based on current meta-analyses results, 14% to 19% of all childhood leukaemia cases may be prevented by breastfeeding for 6 months or more.” They suggested that this reduction in relative risk of leukaemia associated with breastfeeding could be related to several biological mechanisms of breast milk, including the fact that it contains many immunologically active components and anti-inflammatory defence mechanisms that influence the development of a baby’s immune system.

They pointed out that breastfeeding is a “highly accessible, low-cost public health measure” and that their meta-analysis – which included studies not featured in previous meta-analyses on the subject –indicates that promoting breastfeeding for six months or more could help to reduce the incidence of childhood leukaemia, in addition to its other health benefits for children and mothers.

They concluded: “Because the primary goal of public health is prevention of morbidity, health care professionals should be taught the potential health benefits of breastfeeding and given tools to assist mothers with breastfeeding, whether themselves or with referrals to others who can help. The many potential preventive health benefits of breastfeeding should also be communicated openly to the general public, not only to mothers, so breastfeeding can be more socially accepted and facilitated. In addition, more high-quality studies are needed to clarify the biological mechanisms underlying this association between breastfeeding and lower childhood leukaemia morbidity.”

* Efrat L. Amitay, et al. Breastfeeding and Childhood Leukemia Incidence. A Meta-analysis and Systematic Review. JAMA Pediatr. 2015;169(6):e151025. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.1025.

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