Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/10/2010 (4242 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As a microbiologist with a master of science degree and 30 years experience in university research labs in the fields of virology, microbiology and infectious disease, the harsh press given to bacteria and viruses really bugs me. With last year's hype over H1N1, the hysterics surrounding these most ancient of all life forms on Earth rose to new levels.
There is folly in the mindset that regards all disease-causing bacteria and viruses as all bad. In some cases, they can provide enormous benefits to our immune system, a view that is rapidly gaining favour among health care professionals.
In our quest to eradicate disease altogether, we seem to have we lost sight of the fact that we are interconnected to the web of life and that our immune system has evolved in that intricate context. What is the price of this?
Some diseases produce a febrile reaction -- commonly called "fever." Fever has earned a bad rap of its own. However, a 2003 bulletin of the World Health Organization asserts that fever represents a universal and ancient response to infection. The article points out that fever, despite its enormous energy requirement, is found as part of the immune response in all mammals. This strongly suggests that fever has some essential evolutionary value.
Fever is more than just an increase in temperature; it is a very complex natural immunological reaction to infection and triggers a chain reaction within our bodies. Barascos et. al. reported in a 1987 issue of the Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology that fever, along with accompanying chills, doubles or triples the body's metabolic rate. That supplies the substantial energy required to mount an immune response without compromising the energy the rest of the body needs. Secondly, fever stimulates the body to produce a whole raft of components needed to fight the disease. Furthermore, fever causes our blood to circulate faster thus increasing the rate at which disease fighting components of our immune system reach the site of infection.
One noteworthy benefit of acute febrile infections is that they have been found to shrink or cure tumors by triggering a hidden mechanism within the body's immune system. Since the middle of the 20th century, there has been a surge in the incidence of cancer in the developed world. Before the advent of antibiotics, modern hygiene practices and the elimination of severe childhood diseases, severe febrile infections were nature's defence against cancer.
In the late 19th century, a surgeon, Dr. William Coley, discovered that some inoperable tumors spontaneously regressed following acute infections such as scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, diphtheria, typhoid, influenza, amebic dysentery and smallpox -- most of which we now inoculate babies against. Nature is always in a fine balance. If that balance is altered, by such conventional methods as the use of antibiotics, fever reducing medicine or stringent aseptic practices, the immediate benefit gained will eventually be offset by nature. There will be payback time.
No one would argue, of course, that we bring back the plague, polio, smallpox or cholera, but are we too quick to take antiviral medications and fever-reducing drugs for non-life threatening infections?
Even mild febrile reactions have a beneficial role to play, as is demonstrated in the case of polio. Before the 1890s, non-paralytic polio was endemic among infants, but the disease was mild. For thousands of years, because of poor sanitary conditions, most infants were infected with the poliovirus in the first six months of life. Infants receive passive immunity from their mothers while they are in the womb, and this protection lasts until the baby is about six months old. Because of this passive protection, the babies that were infected with the poliovirus suffered only mild fever, while, at the same time, this infection provided the individual with a lifelong immunity to polio.
By 1900, the poor were infected at an early age but the clean, middle class was susceptible to the more dangerous paralytic polio. Paradoxically, advances in sanitation and hygiene defeated nature's way of immunizing mankind against polio.
Progress in the fight against infectious diseases has come a long way in the past 200 years, but have we gone too far in seeking to eradicate any infectious disease that causes any discomfort? Is it necessary to vaccinate all healthy people against influenza?
Many health care professionals are asking whether there is benefit to be gained from the very diseases and symptoms we so diligently seek to annihilate.
We need to take a closer look at ways to work with nature, and not against it.
Ruth Welburn is the author of the recently published The Devil's Ruse, a novel set during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Her website is www.ruthwelburn.com