Breastfeeding is associated with the production of type I interferon in infants infected with influenza virus

Acta Paediatr. 2010 Oct;99(10):1517-21. doi: 10.1111/j.1651-2227.2010.01862.x.


Background: Breast milk-mediated protection against respiratory viruses is well established. However, protective mechanisms are unclear. Type I interferons (IFN) mediate host defence against respiratory viruses, particularly influenza virus. The relationship among type I IFN, respiratory viral infections and breastfeeding has not been explored.

Methods: Type I IFN responses were studied by ELISA and real time PCR in nasal secretions of infants experiencing their first respiratory infection. Modulation of IFN by breastfeeding and other variables affecting severity during viral infection was explored.

Results: One hundred and twenty infants were positive by RT-PCR for influenza virus (n = 24), human metapneumovirus (hMPV) (n = 30) or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) (n = 66). Type I IFNs were detected more frequently in infants infected with influenza virus than in those infected with RSV or hMPV. Breastfeeding promoted higher rates and levels of type I IFN only in infants infected with influenza virus. No effect on IFN production was observed for age, gender or smoking.

Conclusion: Our study confirms that type I IFN production is detected more frequently in infants infected with influenza virus. Importantly, higher rates and levels of type I IFN in these infants are associated with breastfeeding. These observations suggest that breast milk can protect against respiratory viruses by activating innate antiviral mechanisms in the host.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Breast Feeding*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Immunoassay
  • Infant
  • Influenza, Human / immunology
  • Influenza, Human / metabolism*
  • Interferon Type I / immunology
  • Interferon Type I / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Metapneumovirus
  • Milk, Human / immunology*
  • Nasal Mucosa / virology
  • Paramyxoviridae Infections / immunology
  • Paramyxoviridae Infections / metabolism
  • Prospective Studies
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections / immunology
  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections / metabolism


  • Interferon Type I
  • RNA, Messenger