Tag Archives: health

Societal Germophobia: the trouble with a culture suffering from OCD

The following is a slightly expanded, and much more hyperlinked, version of an essay that was broadcast on the series The Moral Is, on Valley Public Radio, KVPR, Fresno, California, on September 18, 2011.  (Which, incidentally, happened to be just after the release of Contagion, the movie that has probably increased our fear of germs!)

ResearchBlogging.orgA recent TV ad hawks a new Kleenex product: single-use hand-towels to replace the obsolete, unhealthy cloth towels we’ve used forever in our bathrooms! Tag line: “Your hands are only as clean as the towel used to dry them.” These new “towels” are supposedly more hygienic because, you know, those old cloth ones become so chock full of germs!!

Of course, Kleenex is playing on our fears to create new profits. Just look at how many antibacterial products fill your supermarket shelves: soaps, wipes, sprays, hand sanitizers… Even Louis Pasteur, whose germ theory of disease helped save millions of lives, might be flabbergasted by how far the health-products industry has run with our fear of all those germs he unleashed!

One consequence is a lesson we’re learning the hard way: bacteria are not static entities easily wiped out by our clever antibiotics, but dynamic lifeforms able to evolve rapidly under new selection pressures. Indiscriminate use of antibiotics has even rendered our hospitals unsafe, filled with multi-drug-resistant “superbugs” (e.g., MRSA). We are down to a faltering last line of defense (a few ultra-potent drugs) which too shows signs of breach. Yet we continue dousing everything around us in antibiotics. Our obsession with hygiene also contributes to the rise in allergies because our bodies don’t get the chance to encounter and develop defenses against many antigens, and overreact even to harmless things!

Meanwhile, microbiologists, modern descendants of Pasteur, have discovered something that should give us further pause: our own bodies are literally teeming with bacteria!! Human bodies serve as habitat for colonies of hundreds of kinds of bacteria! We, each of us, carry more bacterial cells in/on our bodies than actual human cells! As Ed Yong put it on BBC radio this week, we should consider ourselves not human so much as “a universe of bacteria in a “human shaped sack””! Rugged individuals? Nah! We are in fact multitudes of species; our bodies, whole ecosystems of…  germs! 

But wait, don’t freak out!! 

Most of the bacteria in our bodies are actually beneficial to us, acting symbiotically to protect and nurture our tissues in ways we barely understand. You may already know that bacteria in our guts help process a variety of foods that our own enzymes cannot handle. Some break down cellulose so we get nourishment from plants, some manufacture essential vitamins and amino acids, while others remove toxins or ward off infections. Scientists have recently found bacteria in the human mouth that actually help strengthen enamel, not cause tooth decay! Yes! How long before we see a probiotic bacterial mouthwash on the market?

A new picture is emerging which suggests that some of our diseases may result from imbalances in our bacterial colonies. Our penchant for using powerful antibiotics is rather like using napalm to rid your garden of a few weeds! Doctors already recommend probiotic capsules and yogurts to be taken alongside antibiotics to help repopulate our digestive tracts with healthy bacteria. May we soon see more products that restore bacteria to other parts of our bodies and our habitats damaged by excessive cleaning? We are already seeing a boom in probiotics, raising fears that the pendulum, beginning to swing the other way, may be pushed too far in that other direction by the same market forces that bring us all those cleaning products.

Germophobia, excessive hand-washing – these are symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a psychiatric condition not easy to treat. How does one treat an entire society exhibiting symptoms of OCD? 

Pass me that new tissue would you, not the sterile one, but the one soaked in good bacteria?


  1. Okada, H., Kuhn, C., Feillet, H., & Bach, J. (2010). The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ for autoimmune and allergic diseases: an update Clinical & Experimental Immunology, 160 (1), 1-9 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2249.2010.04139.x
  2. Pflughoeft, K. J., & Versalovic, J. (2011). Human Microbiome in Health and Disease Annual Review of Pathology: Mechanisms of Disease, 7 (1) DOI: 10.1146/annurev-pathol-011811-132421
  3. Xu, J. (2003). Inaugural Article: Honor thy symbionts Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100 (18), 10452-10459 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1734063100
  4. Crielaard, W., Zaura, E., Schuller, A., Huse, S., Montijn, R., & Keijser, B. (2011). Exploring the oral microbiota of children at various developmental stages of their dentition in the relation to their oral health BMC Medical Genomics, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1755-8794-4-22


Alternatives to a “socialist” healthcare safety net

It remains a source of astonishmeht to me, having lived in the US for two decades now, that this (once) richest/most poweful nation in the world does not provide adequate healthcare for all its citizens. Coming from a (once) poor country where, to paraphrase Steinbeck, you got “as much healthcare as you had jack to pay for”, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had reasonably good health insurance while remaining poor in academia these 20 years. Even more fortunate, I suppose, to have not had to deal with any significant health issues in our family yet. But these have been the same 20 years in the aftermath of the Reagan revolution during which the economic and social safety net has been actively torn down in this country, by conservative ideology aided by corrupt politicians (of both parties) in the pockets of corporations. Now I live in one of the poorest cities in the US, in one of the richest agricultural counties in the nation, in a state which still has enjoys of the top 10 economies in the world. Everyday I drive past homeless panhandlers (is that a nicer word than beggars as they’d be called in India?) arrayed along freeway exit ramps and streetcorners, holding up signs more often than not pleading for help with medical expenses that are among the biggest factors turning people out of their homes. Yet, the corporatist/fascist right (and now the misguided, cognitively dissonant tea party) continues to rage against the “socialist” Obamacare that is going to “destroy” this country with “death panels” and all. The so-called left (what passes for the left in the US today is so much to the right of any reasonable center that its not even funny…), meanwhile, is so afraid of its own big electoral mandate, and no doubt beholden to the same corporate interests, that it decides to leave its most potent arguments (“public option” anyone?) off the table to cobble together a less than satisfactory “reform” package. Nevertheless, that inadequate healthcare plan may yet turn out to be a bright feather in Obama’s cap – unless the tea party led Republicans regain control of congress and the senate in a few weeks from now and begin steering the nation back on their original track – heading straight for the cliff-edge. And we wonder why societies collapse?

Obama has belatedly started drumming up his administration’s achievements on this and other fronts – perhaps too late for this election cycle, but maybe there is still time to bridge that “enthusiasm gap” in the next couple of weeks. Because the other side has no shortage of enthusiasm (or cognitive dissonance) to tear down any “governmental” fabric that can hold this nation together.

For those of you who can vote this November, and are concerned about the health care issues, allow me to offer you some alternative scenarios – ponder these while you decide whether or not a trip to the voting booth is worth your time and enthusiasm.

First we have the alternative dominating the mainstream media discourse thanks to the tea party enthusiasm:

Which leads to one really enthusiastic recruit to the cause:


And if they win, and succeed in rolling back even more of the tattered social safety net in this great country, you could very well be looking at scenes like the following, from my natal country, the world’s largest (and once socialist) democracy that never really got around to building a proper social safety net in the first place. Healthcare remains a pay-as-you-go system in India, and the “free market” there has lead to solutions such as this one for dental care:

Or you could actually look up to your socialist neighbors to the north, the Canadians, who not only have national healthcare, but are also worried enough about your nation’s policies to have someone rap about it! So here’s the better alternative, articulated in rhythm and rhyme by Baba Brinkman – go listen to (and download) his latest single: Adaptive Medicine.


So what are you going to pick?

Killing the children softly, with the very best of intentions…

The road to hell (which may simply be another name for some of the poorer places on this very earth) is often paved with the best intentions, they say. And this is probably more true of first world funded “development” projects in the third world than of most other human endeavors. The western/northern experts arrive in a poor nation of the global south, with cash and technology in hand, and hearts full of sympathy (let’s give some of them the benefit of the doubt, and politely ignore some not-so-hidden corporate/colonialist agendas), wanting to do something, anything, to alleviate the suffering of the poor natives! They apply their expertise to identify at least one tractable problem, and find a technical solution which should improve quality of human life immensely. And indeed it does! The project is successful, people – especially children – start to live longer, the economy picks up, and the third world nation even begins to experience a miracle of development!!

So far so good.

So where does the killing chidren part come in? Deborah Blum has this sad story from one such “living” experiment – here’s an excerpt:

There’s no surprise – and one might think, no news value – in the fact that prenatal arsenic exposure might pose a serious health risk. Except that this finding doesn’t derive from one more neatly controlled laboratory study. It comes from what I’m going to call a living experiment, in which the test subjects turn out to be human beings and those statistics about infant risk are actually based on tallying up dead children.

To explain: during the 1970s, international aid agencies came up with what seemed like a brilliant plan to stem a plague of water-borne illnesses in the Asian country of Bangladesh. Cholera, typhoid, dysentery were killing citizens by the thousand. As the pathogens responsible lived in surface water, public health officials decided the answer lay in cleaner supplies underground. Aid organizations joined together to install wells in disease-troubled villages, reaching down into the germ-free ground water below. They chose simple, relatively inexpensive tube wells, placed thousands of these over-sized drinking straws into the shallow aquifers.

At first, it seemed to work like a blessing. Infant mortality rates dropped by 50 percent as the rate of water-borne diseases dropped. But by the mid-1990s, a strange epidemic of other illnesses began to appear – some symptoms rather like cholera (lethargy, severe stomach pain, nausea and diarrhea), but others wickedly their own: such as a roughening and darkening of skin, a corrosion appearance of lesions on hands and feet:

Arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh

In fact, as a team of researchers from adjacent India concluded in 1995: classic symptoms of arsenic poisoning. As it turned out, no one had done a good geological survey of the bedrock surrounding the aquifers. And with the best of intentions, the live-saving wells had been drilled into area unusually rich in naturally occurring arsenic.


You really have to read the full story on her blog.


Are cytokines keeping me up burning the midnight oil?

Cytokines, which are products of the immune system, may factor heavily in insomnia, new research shows. Study participants who were exposed to standard doses showed marked deterioration in nighttime sleep patterns. During the day, they were extremely fatigued, but even when offered a nap, could not sleep. (Credit: iStockphoto)

I wonder what my immune system is up to then…