|You can understand the current obsession with hygiene. SARS, Avian Flu, Mad Cow and other scary new communicable diseases. Advertisers terrifying us with microscopic close-ups of bacteria and viruses to hawk their latest poisons and prophylactics. Wackos putting anthrax in the mails. Johnny Depp confessing he’s starting to sympathize with Howard Hughes and telling stories about the average number of different urine residues in the peanut bowls in bars (21). An epidemic of allergies and asthma. The fact that viruses spread more readily through handshakes and playing cards than French kisses. The awareness that more and more people outside the health care profession, from fast-food workers to innkeepers to police officers, are wearing surgical gloves at work.
Yet the precautions we take can actually make matters worse. The overuse of antibiotics has allowed new, virulent strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics to evolve. Children exposed to pets in infancy are five times less likely to develop an allergy to dander than those whose parents ignorantly get rid of their pets when babies arrive. The foods we eat are drenched in chemicals that could be more dangerous than what these chemicals are designed to kill. People are restricted from visiting sick loved ones by regulations. Pets are banned from more and more locations. Precautionary killings have destroyed millions of animals and bankrupted many farmers.
This could be seen as a form of ‘learned helplessness’ run amok. We fail to do simple things, like washing our hands regularly with soap and water, because we underestimate the dangers. Yet while tens of thousands die every year from ‘ordinary’ influenzas, the occurrence of a few cases of an exotic new one is enough to cause whole countries to be shunned and people to walk around wearing surgical masks.
The cynics, of course, say that the health care industry is to blame. The sicker people are, the more the call for their products, and if these products enable more virulent germs to mutate and lower people’s resistance to disease, so much the better. They solutions create new problems, and with them the need for even more expensive and profitable solutions.
So how do we strike a sensible balance? What hygiene processes are logical and responsible, and which are hysterical overreactions?
The first thing to realize is that food-borne disease is not nearly as great a threat as poor diet. You’re far likelier to get diseases, and die, because of what you eat, than because of unwanted germs and diseases hitchhiking on your food. The incidence of diseases caused by bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms tends to rise with proximity to others of the same species (crowding) and degree of movement and intermixing, and fall with the use of basic mitigating habits like washing hands, refrigeration and cooking. With some notable exceptions, new antibiotics, drugs, irradiation and inoculations have played a comparatively smaller role in the fight against disease than basic hygiene and education, and are much more expensive. As the rest of nature’s creatures show, all animals in natural, uncrowded environments have a natural immunity to most of the diseases they are likely to encounter. But we’ve introduced some new variables into the equation: We live a lot closer together, we breathe stale, recycled air, we move frequently to new areas, and we travel even more frequently, picking up and bringing new diseases thousands of miles with us. So we can’t rely just on natural immunity to stay healthy.
Some steps you can take are obvious: Stay in good physical condition, eat well, in moderation, avoid chemicals in your foods (and in your home!) as much as possible, don’t smoke or tan or overdrink, do regular self-exams, and don’t ignore health problem signs. Poor mental health — stress, depression, sleep deprivation — can also lower resistance to illness, but these are much harder to grapple with.
Beyond that? Wash your hands a lot, with soap and water — nothing fancier or more expensive than that. Get that other toxic stuff out of your house, take the masks off your kids, let them roll in the dirt with the dog licking their face. Eat stuff with less stuff in it. Hug and kiss people instead of shaking hands.
OK, that last one I just made up. But it probably won’t hurt.
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