A bacteria now recognised as a carcinogen for stomach cancer has been found to be using mothers as a means of transmission.
Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is a bacterium that causes chronic gastritis, a long-term inflammation of the stomach.
H. pylori infection is one of the most widespread, affecting about 50 per cent of the world's population (over three billion people).
It commonly causes ulcers, and accounts for more than 90 per cent of duodenal ulcers and up to 80 per cent of gastric ulcers.
Before the discovery of this bacterium in 1982, spicy food, acid, stress, and poor lifestyle choices were considered the major causes of ulcers.
The majority of patients were given long-term medications, such as H2 blockers, and more recently, proton pump inhibitors, without a chance for a permanent cure.
Unfortunately, prolonged use of these medicines (which were administered to suppress hyperacidity) had been linked to the increased rate of atrophy or weakening of the stomach lining.
In 1994, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified H. pylori as a carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent, in humans.
Today, H. pylori infection is well established as an important cause of stomach cancer, the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the world today.
Several research papers have also shown a link between H. pylori infections and diabetes.
While the prevalence of H. pylori infection is comparable between men and women, data shows that infected mothers are likely the main source for childhood H. pylori infection.
Studies have found that H. pylori infections are usually acquired in childhood by age 10.
Infection is most likely through ingestion of contaminated food and water, and through person-to-person contact (saliva).
As mothers are usually the primary caregivers in a household, they have close contact with everyone under the same roof.
A study conducted in Malaysia in 2010 found that H. pylori infection rates differed amongst different ethnic groups.
Research carried out at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) found that the highest prevalence of H. pylori infection was among Indians (45 per cent), followed by Chinese (37 per cent), and Malays 18 per cent.
Researchers were unclear about the reasons for the difference, although varying socio-cultural practices particular to each race is probably a contributing factor.
This includes communal eating habits, diet, and genetic predisposition.
Most individuals infected with H. pylori have few or no symptoms.
Symptoms that could signal a H. pylori infection include episodes of gastritis, minor belching, bloating, nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort, and even bad breath.
Individuals with more serious infections could experience persistent abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting (occasionally with the presence of blood), fatigue, and a sense of fullness after consuming a small amount of food.
Infected individuals usually carry the infection for life, unless they are treated to eradicate the bacterium.
While medical practitioners agree that H. pylori infections must be treated in order to prevent gastritis from worsening into ulcers or becoming a breeding ground for cancer, the current regimens are wrought with challenges.
Patients with H. pylori infection feel lousy because their stomachs aren't functioning well.
When put on treatment with antibiotics and other gastritis medications, many may feel worse. Side effects such as worsening stomach upsets, nausea, headaches and a metallic taste in the mouth, has led many patients to shy away from treatment or drop out without completing their course of medication.
With increasing antibiotic usage, the bacterium has developed defences to overcome their efficacy.
A study published in the October 2010 issue of the Journal of Infection and Immunity indicated that H. pylori may replicate on the cell membrane, ultimately forming a microcolony that is difficult for the antibiotics currently being used, to penetrate.
Not only that, after two or three unsuccessful eradication attempts by antibiotics, a high rate of H. pylori resistance (50-73 per cent) was observed.
This means that every unsuccessful attempt to kill H. pylori only makes the bacterium stronger.
Education is key in tackling H. pylori infection.
Practicing good hygiene such as the washing of hands before and after meals, brushing teeth, no sharing of plates, glasses and cutlery, and no bed-sharing between siblings, is a must.
In order to circumvent further infection, mothers should be tested for infection, especially if symptoms are present.
Natural alternatives to treat H. pylori such as black or green tea, garlic and red wine, have been expounded on by naturalists, although there have been few reliable studies to substantiate such claims.
Probiotics have been used to create a healthy colony of gut flora that builds a stronger immune system to fight H. pylori.
However, probiotics alone are not strong enough to kill H. pylori.
A study conducted by Swedish researchers on children in Bangladesh suggested that breastfeeding can protect children against early infection.
Breast milk contains antibodies that can bind onto foreign substances (eg bacteria), and help prevent infection.
"Children who have received high levels of antibodies to the peptic ulcer bacteria from their mothers during breastfeeding, were infected later than the children who had not received such high levels of antibodies," says Dr Taufiqur Bhuiyan from Sahlgrenska Academy, Sweden.
In the world of nutraceuticals (natural substances with clinically proven benefits), the most promising results against H. pylori came from the Pasteur Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, using a conifer pine needle extract.
In a randomised double-blind clinical study, it was found to not only treat H. pylori infection, but also help restore stomach functioning, and reduce pre-cancerous lesions of the stomach in patients with atrophic gastritis.
The research programme for the compound has been going on for about 80 years.
Although it has been listed in the Russian pharmacopoeia since the 1950s, this research was a closely guarded secret within the tightly regulated former Soviet Union.
It was only through an inter-government scientific exchange programme with Australia, and the fall of the old political regime that the technology developed to extract the compound was successfully preserved and brought into the limelight.
This article is brought to you by the Nuvaceuticals Division of Nuvanta Sdn Bhd.