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The Watering Hole - Conversations on 21st. Century religion.

To wash hands or not to wash, that is the question.

Puzzled by the debate over anti-biotic hand washes and preventing diseases?


Scientists have gone back and forth for years on the germ exposure issue and hand-washing. Are they really any further into identifying things that prevent sickness? Well, there is some information that will actually help with the confusion. The really important stuff is in the last 5 paragraphs.

The puzzling state of science

The really important stuff is in the last 4 paragraphs.

It wasn't until the discovery in 1850 by Louie Pasteur, that germs cause illness, that we had a major breakthrough that immediately saved lives, and sparked the creation of medicines that help our immune systems fight bacterial and viral diseases. But there is a lot of backtracking today about everyday cleanliness, with too frequent hand washing coming under attack. And if you eat dirt, doctors say that is OK (avoid contaminated dirt, it can harm you), even though natural occurring bacteria may be present. And some studies have shown that cold and flu germs and viruses are mostly present in the nose and throat, not so much in the mouth, so kissing is still probably OK. The Center For Disease Control and the Surgeon General have not weighed in. What are we to think?

Immunologists strongly suspect that exposure to disease and allergens early in life conditions the immune system so that you are less likely to be sick later in life. The fact is, many disease germs and viruses are present on surfaces or through exchange of fluids, in our everyday life, including the deadly flesh eating diseases. Most viruses can't only survive for more than a few minutes or hours without being inside a host cell.

We don't often get dangerous diseases because we don't have breaks (cuts, abrasions) in our skin or mucous membranes that allow them entrance, and our stomach acid kills many types of germs. Some suspect that acid blockers may be responsible for some increase in illness. Some suspect undigested sugar and salt as possible anti-bacterial agents. Many diseases that attack us are not gotten by some people because they are immune. And many mothers find that they have great immunity from childhood diseases, even those brought home from school by their kids.

In the winter, the dry air dries out the mucous membranes in our nose and throat, allowing bacteria and viruses to attack the tissue. So we get more infections in the winter. Adding a humidifier to raise humidity back up to over 50% helps avoid this problem, but most homes, and government and commercial buildings don't offer this. They should - this allows a 5 degree lowering of temperature for the same comfort level, besides lowering the disease rate, absenteeism, and impeded work output, and it lowers energy costs.

Bacteria and other micro-organisms have been found to be essential to our survival. E-coli, when our immune system is suppressed, or when we have too many anti-biotics in our system, can kill us. Yet e-coli bacteria on our skin and in our body openings kills other bacteria so that that don't harm us. Bacteria and enzymes in our gut assist in digestion. Recently scientists identified several macrophages, which are small micro-organisms that are much smaller than bacteria and even a virus, may destroy bacteria that are responsible for acne.

Some doctors believe that being too clean, such as using anti-bacterial soap too frequently, may actually makes us less immune. (All soap is actually anti-bacterial whether it has specific anti-bacterial ingredients or not.) They also think that using strong anti-bacterial agents may actually cause super-bacteria that is resistant to current anti-biotics.

The challenge today is that doctors and scientists are only offering educated guesses about the role of anti-bacterial and anti-viral agents in the role of creating super-bacteria. They haven't fully identified a mechanism, that I'm aware of, that would do this. Their model is life-forms that adapt to their environment or mutate and have the ability to live in hostile conditions. Adaptation and mutation are different possible processes.

If some of these micro-organisms have mutated to resistant strains, and you apply an anti-bacterial agent, then what you have left is the resistant organisms. A single mutated bacteria can divide, resulting in an exponential growth process, creating infectious colonies or attack individual cells. Once a virus is in a cell, it harnesses the replication mechanism of the cell and creates new cells with a virus. Whether the ant-biotic had anything to do with this process is unknown. Mutation happens regardless of the environment. Adaptation happens because of the environment. It may simply be the incubator effect of dense populations that permits rapid mutation of these micro-organisms.

The really important stuff

There have been various studies regarding the role of anti-bacterial agents in creating super-bugs. Bacteria do adapt to harsh environments, just like fish found in a cave adapt by losing their eyes and improving other sensors. Recent review of adaptive action in bacteria indicates that anti-bacterial agents used in hospitals for the last 100 or so years does not contribute to this action. Article: Bacterial adaptation and resistance to antiseptics, disinfectants and preservatives is not a new phenomenon

Before people go off the deep end, thinking that cleanliness is not important and exposure to disease is not such a bad thing, although I'm not a doctor I can point out what authoritative agencies say. We should keep in mind that the following common diseases, according to the CDC, are spread by direct contact: Chicken pox, common cold, conjunctivitis (Pink Eye), Hepatitis A and B, herpes simplex (cold sores), influenza, measles, mononucleosis, Fifth disease, pertussis, adeno/rhino viruses, some types of meningitis and some types of pneumonia.

The following diseases are spread through droplets (sneeze, cough, etc.): Bacterial Meningitis, Chickenpox, Common cold, Influenza, Mumps, Strep throat, Tuberculosis, Measles, Rubella, and Whooping cough. These diseases can be prevented simply by hand washing and covering coughs and sneezes. You can catch strep throat and the common cold over and over again - you don't develop immunity to this and some other bad diseases. And while exposure to Hepatitis A may give 90% of people immunity, you don't want a severe case of it at any age because you may die. In fact, many of these diseases, mild or severe, often kill the young and the old.

We have created large incubators for diseases. We trap millions of sick and healthy people together everyday in school systems and work environments. When less common diseases occur, they spread through the school systems like wild fire. Everyday colds and flu are also spread in these incubators like wild fire, and these diseases have continuous opportunity to mutate into something new that the body has not yet developed immunity to. Usually disease is not spread unless there is a bad infection resulting in soreness and elevated temperature.

Immunity doesn't mean that you don't get a disease. It simply means that your immune system can fight it off. Diseases flourish where there is opportunity, and mutate rapidly. You can still have a mild or unrecognized case, and at some point during the infection you may have a limited ability to give it to others. Cleanliness and limiting exposing others, such as sneezing into your elbow, is essential in stopping the spread of disease. One point of good news is that a vaccination for the cold virus is close, and flu shots do help your body develop immunity to common viruses in circulation, which helps your body develop white cells that recognize them earlier to fight them off.

Stay healthy; Wash your hands.


- Dorian

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