The association between birth order and childhood leukemia may be modified by paternal age and birth weight. Pooled results from the International Childhood Cancer Cohort Consortium (I4C)
The "delayed infection hypothesis" states that a paucity of infections in early childhood may lead to higher risks of childhood leukemia (CL), especially acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Using prospectively collected data from six population-based birth cohorts we studied the association between birth order (a proxy for pathogen exposure) and CL. We explored whether other birth or parental characteristics modify this association. With 2.2 × 106 person-years of follow-up, 185 CL and 136 ALL cases were ascertained. In Cox proportional hazards models, increasing birth order (continuous) was inversely associated with CL and ALL; hazard ratios (HR) = 0.88, 95% confidence interval (CI): (0.77-0.99) and 0.85: (0.73-0.99), respectively. Being later-born was associated with similarly reduced hazards of CL and ALL compared to being first-born; HRs = 0.78: 95% CI: 0.58-1.05 and 0.73: 0.52-1.03, respectively. Successive birth orders were associated with decreased CL and ALL risks (P for trend 0.047 and 0.055, respectively). Multivariable adjustment somewhat attenuated the associations. We found statistically significant and borderline interactions between birth weight (p = 0.024) and paternal age (p = 0.067), respectively, in associations between being later-born and CL, with the lowest risk observed for children born at <3 kg with fathers aged 35+ (HR = 0.18, 95% CI: 0.06-0.50). Our study strengthens the theory that increasing birth order confers protection against CL and ALL risks, but suggests that this association may be modified among subsets of children with different characteristics, notably advanced paternal age and lower birth weight. It is unclear whether these findings can be explained solely by infectious exposures.