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Intestinal microbiota development begins immediately following birth.1 The composition of the infant’s evolving microbiota is initially defined by the mother, the source of the newborn’s first microbial inoculum. Colonising bacteria rapidly adapt to breast milk and epithelial mucins as sources of nutrients.
The prevalence of caesarean section delivery in Western countries is increasing. Caesarean born babies are deprived of contact with the maternal/vaginal microbiota and the first exposure is characterised by a lack of strict anaerobes and the presence of facultative anaerobes such as Clostridium species.2 Caesarean born infants have a more slowly diversifying microbiota, with differences reported from normally born infants, even after six months of age. Aberrancies in early microbiota acquisition can affect immunophysiological development with a heightened disease risk.2,3 This study assessed microbiota composition in seven year old children and compared the respective effects of normal delivery and caesarean section.
In all, 60 seven year old children were randomly selected from Southwestern Finland, representing caesarean and vaginal deliveries.4 The children were invited to attend a clinical examination, including skin prick testing and determination of serum total and antigen specific IgE antibodies. Perinatal data were derived from hospital medical records. Questionnaires were completed by the parents to verify a history of allergic symptoms.
Faecal samples were produced at clinical examination and frozen at −70°C for microbiota assessment. Faecal microbiota profiles were determined using the culture independent fluorescent in situ hybridisation method. Probes specific for bifidobacteria, lactobacilli/enterococci, bacteroides, clostridia, and total bacterial numbers were applied.5 Written informed consent was obtained from parents and the study was approved by the ethics committee of the university.
Of the study population, 31 children had been delivered by caesarean section and 29 by vaginal delivery. At seven years of age, significantly higher numbers of clostridia were found in children delivered vaginally compared with caesarean born children (p = 0.0055) (table 1). No differences were observed in other faecal bacteria or total numbers of bacteria (table 1).
Children with asthma diagnosed by a physician (n = 6) had lower numbers of clostridia in their faecal specimens while healthy children (n = 54) had higher clostridial numbers.
Early colonisation guides subsequent microbiota development which may later impact on health, to the extent of predisposing some infants towards specific diseases.3 Bifidobacteria are considered useful for health promotion. Reported effects are related to the individual “balance” of the gut microbiota and prevention of aberrancies within the gastrointestinal tract. Clostridia are generally considered harmful toxin producing species causing diarrhoea and food poisoning.1
Our results show that bifidobacterial levels in the faeces of cohort children were comparable at seven years of age, independent of the mode of delivery at birth, while numbers of clostridia were significantly higher in normally born children seven years after birth.
Differences in neonatal gut microbiota, in particular the balance between Bifidobacterium species and Clostridium species, have been reported to precede heightened production of antigen specific IgE antibodies, a hallmark of the atopic responder type.1 Such differences may be related to external environmental factors (for example, mode of delivery and early feeding practices). The results of this study, showing that clostridial numbers in normally born children seven years after delivery are significantly higher than in caesarean born children, demonstrate that abnormal development of the intestinal microbiota reported following caesarean section delivery may continue even beyond infancy. These findings call for further assessment of microbiota composition throughout childhood when dietary interventions may still offer a rational means of health improvement. It is of importance to characterise the optimal clostridial numbers and species composition at different ages following normal and caesarean delivery.