Friday, June 16, 2006

Your Baby and the Sewer

The Associated Press published a great story about sewer rats today. It seems a recent study has shown that rats living in sewers have better immune systems than rats raised in clean laboratories. The findings are in line with what has been called the Hygiene Hypothesis. My sister-in-law, who is an allergist at Duke University, told MaGreen and me about this hypothesis a few months back and we keep thinking about it. The basic observation is that children who live in the countryside generally have less allergy problems than kids who live in the city. It’s thought that country kids’ immune systems are challenged by living close to animals -- think hair, poop, germs. City kids’ immune systems don’t have anything to do but overreact to regular things. So the country kids build strong immune systems that attack harmful viruses and bacteria whereas spoiled, squeaky-clean city kids have bored, alienated immune systems that listen to punk rock and freak out over hair balls, wheat, and peanuts.

Dr. William Parker, a Duke doctor who co-authored the study, is quoted as saying, “Your immune system is like the person who lives in the perfect house and has all the food they want, you're going to start worrying about the little things like someone stepping on your flowers.”

When I read that, I started thinking about kids who live in filthy houses with peeling lead paint worrying about where the next meal will come from. Or kids who actually live with rats in sewers. Before I quit the medical track, I went to Ayacucho, Peru and studied an intestinal parasite that children often get from pigs. I remember this mother who brought her little boy who suffered frequent seizures to us. The mother knew that the parasite we were studying could have caused her son’s illness. But as a student researcher I didn’t have the means to get her son treatment, which was one of the experiences that opened my eyes to disease as a primarily political problem not a purely medical one.

I’m straying from my topic, but I guess my point is that we have to find someway to maintain hygiene without alienating our bodies from the world. Eat cheese with mold on it. Don’t wash the pacifier every single time it touches the ground. Camp. Hang out at farms. Take the cellophane off your baby.

[I stole the above picture from where Garbage Pail Kids merchandise can be bought.]

1 comment:

Fiddler said...

I totally agree... the more natural, real stuff we expose ourselves to (including food, work, people, LIVING) the better able our bodies are to adapt to changes... Great article!