How are the pathogens that cause Th1 disease passed from parent to child? For one thing, it’s quite probable that the pathogens are able to survive in the sperm and egg. It’s equally true that the pathogens are simply passed among people in close contact, and infants and their parents are together quite often.

But the results of a recent study show it’s also likely that some of the chronic bacterial species that cause inflammatory disease can remain alive in breast milk and thus be passed from mother to child by breast feeding. While the study, conducted by researchers at the University of Turku in Finland, indicates that a virus can be passed in breast milk during feeding, the fact that the Th1 pathogens have evolved so many survival mechanisms and are such persistent pathogens strongly suggests that at least some of them possess the same capability.

More specifically, the Finnish research team found that Human papillomavirus type 16 (also called high-risk HPV-16), which has been linked to cervical cancer, can be detected in human breast milk collected during the early period after a woman delivers her baby. According to the team, the fact that viral particles survive in breast milk greatly implies that infants can acquire oral HPV infection via breast feeding.

HPV attacking a cell

The findings are supported by previous research in which Syrjanen, a pathologist at the University of Turku, and colleagues found evidence of transmission of HPV from an infected mother to her newborn infant. The discovery led them to initiate the Finnish HPV Family Study, the goal of which is to elucidate the transmission modes of HPV between family members.

For their current report, Syrjanen’s team looked for HPV in cervical scrapings obtained from 223 mothers and in oral scrapings from 87 fathers. Then, they performed HPV testing of the breast milk samples 3 days postpartum. High-risk HPV DNA was detected in 10 milk samples (4.5 percent) and DNA sequencing from nine samples confirmed that the virus was indeed high-risk HPV-16.

Interestingly, a statistically significant correlation was also found between HPV in milk and the presence of high risk-HPV in oral scrapings obtained from the father.

According to Syrjanen, this means transmission could have occurred by the spouse, from the mouth to the nipple and then to the breast, or it could have occurred from the mother’s hands. If HPV and other pathogens can remain alive in the sperm, it could also be hypothesized that some fathers simply pass their infants HPV while they are in the womb. Since chances are high that the father has also passed the virus to the mother (or it could have been the other way around!) HPV could end up in her breast milk as well.

So why are so many adults infected with HPV in the first place? It boils down to the reality that many of them also harbor high levels of the Th1 pathogens. Since the Th1 pathogens are able to create ligands that slow the activity of the Vitamin D Receptor and subsequently the innate immune response, their presence creates an atmosphere in which it’s also easy for co-infectious agents like HPV to survive.

One thing’s for sure. Pathogens are stealthy. The conventional belief that washing hands and covering the mouth after sneezing largely prevents their spread will almost certainly be replaced by the knowledge that they can be passed much more easily among family members. So it’s not defective genes we’re sharing…it’s crafty pathogens!