Background: In rural Gambia, birth season predicts infection-related adult mortality, providing evidence that seasonal factors in early life may programme immune development. This study tested whether lymphocyte subpopulations assessed by automated full blood count and flow cytometry in cord blood and at 8, 16 and 52 weeks in rural Gambian infants (N = 138) are affected by birth season (DRY = Jan-Jun, harvest season, few infections; WET = Jul-Dec, hungry season, many infections), birth size or micronutrient status.
Results: Geometric mean cord and postnatal counts were higher in births occurring in the WET season with both season of birth and season of sampling effects. Absolute CD3+, CD8+, and CD56+ counts, were higher in WET season births, but absolute CD4+ counts were unaffected and percentage CD4+ counts were therefore lower. CD19+ counts showed no association with birth season but were associated with concurrent plasma zinc status. There were no other associations between subpopulation counts and micronutrient or anthropometric status.
Conclusion: These results demonstrate a seasonal influence on cell counts with a disproportionate effect on CD8+ and CD56+ relative to CD4+ cells. This seasonal difference was seen in cord blood (indicating an effect in utero) and subsequent samples, and is not explained by nutritional status. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis than an early environmental exposure can programme human immune development.