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    Kids Need To Eat A Little Dirt To Be Healthy
    By Hank Campbell | March 3rd 2011 10:33 AM | 18 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

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    Try going into a hospital room to see a newborn baby without using that annoying hand sanitizer stuff - the Frankenstein monster had an easier time with angry villagers than you will have with concerned hospital staff and family members.  The hospital staff I can understand - they know people are looking for a reason to sue.   Family members are more of a puzzle.

    Weren't they kids once?   You have to eat a little dirt to be healthy, people.

    The Hygiene Hypothesis is not new, but I will recap; basically, your body builds its immune system by tackling small problems, the same way vaccines create small problems to build an immunity against big ones.   If you're too clean when you're young, the real world is going to make you sick.  Very sick.

    In a previous life I ran the business unit of an electromagnetic analysis software company - 'solving' Maxwell's Equations, basically, to help companies find problems before a prototype.   My prior experience until then had always been on the design side, dealing with people in groups at Intel and places like that, so I had never been to a semiconductor foundry.   Off to Hsinchu, Taiwan I went.   I was met by our applications engineer there, who took me on a walking tour and bought me some delicious spiced chicken from a street vendor.   And one for the road, he said.  Indeed, it was good so a second one for later was perfect.  

    I returned to my hotel room and the CEO, my boss and something of a semiconductor legend, had an email waiting for me with a wealth of information about the company, TSMC, Hsinchu in general, and then 300 words down, "Whatever you do, don't buy chicken out on the street."  Hepatitis is everywhere and they're all immune to it, he noted, but Americans need vaccines.

    Well, I didn't know a lot about Hepatitis but it was clearly too late, since I was eating that second chicken when I read his email, but when I returned home a week later I went to a doctor and he did a test and said I didn't get hepatitis nor would I - at least not the kind from eating chicken on the street in Taiwan.   I was curious why, since many Americans needed shots, and he asked if I ever lived on a farm.  Well, I had and he explained that on a farm, around animals, etc., exposure to hepatitis happened so often (basically, due to poop) an immunity was built up early.

    Cleverly-marketed products are creating a culture of 'germophobia', notes microbiologist Dr. Alex Berezow, and that is going to cause more problems than it solves.   Triclosan in antibacterial soaps is now being associated with more allergies and as they have become more popular there are concerns about environmental impact.   Benefit over soap and water?  None.

    The Hygiene Hypothesis has an air of truthiness to it but where is the data?   So far it is correlation but it's compelling correlation.  Autoimmune diseases are way up in rich countries but not in poor ones where they don't have helicopter parents overpaying for antibacterial soaps.     Berezow also discusses 'helminth therapy', which involves deliberate infestation with parasitic worms.    This stimulates low levels of pathogenicity that may have been missing due to lack of exposure to organisms humans had throughout history - until now - and has had success in clinical trials.

    It doesn't mean you should stop taking showers, just let kids get messy once in a while.

    Article: CNN - We're a nation of germophobes

    Comments

    Gerhard Adam
    Hank, your point is well taken, but I would extend that concept in another direction as well.  Since humans have 10 times the microbes living in and on them as they have cells, germophobia can have severe repercussions if we begin to destroy the microbes we depend on.

    In particular, besides the routine exposure to low levels of disease germs, we also need to ensure that we have the necessary microbes for our own well-being in order to be healthy.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    That means I get to eat more Taiwanese street chicken, right?  I am all for it.
    Gerhard Adam
    Of course ... although I would remind you about Sascha and your blogpost about cats. :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    You might get into trouble with Josh here if you argue this too far. Where do you draw the line between eating a little dirt and attending measles-parties?
    Hank
    You and Josh may have had a different culture than I did growing up.  When I was a kid, and one kid in the family got measles, all the kids got thrown into the room together so everyone would get it at the same time.   It was a rather ordinary childhood disease and any woman over age 60 knows how to take care of a kid with it.   It was not the boogeyman it is out made out to be now.  

    The vaccinate-everyone-for-everything community is not as annoying as the anti-vaccination community, mostly because the anti-vaccine people take progressive entitlement to an entirely new level; their mentality being "I want your kids to all be vaccinated for the herd immunity but I am not risking mine".  

    Data so far is not enough to say that we are over-protecting kids (though people who want to believe that will find plenty of confirmation bias in studies already done) but there is certainly a line that will need to be drawn, just like you suggest.

    I think Josh objects more to people who would rather their kids die than get a vaccine, or who believe some homeopathic mumbo-jumbo will cure diseases.  I doubt a rugby player objects to getting in some mud.
    vongehr
    I also got the measles that way, but measles sleep over parties are as far as I know a huge red cloth for the anti-anti-vaxers. I am at a loss about where they draw the line.
    rholley
    Who is Josh?  (If you mean the Rugbyologist, please explain the context.)
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    logicman
    At risk of injecting a serious note into this discussion, may I make a suggestion?

    Perhaps eating dirt causes babies to develop certain immunities sooner than they would do if prevented from eating dirt.  If any person in contact with a baby has handled dirt recently and not thoroughly sterilized their hands, then the baby will still be exposed to some quantity of pathogens.

    This idea is my sweeping generalization of an effect reported in a paper on baby rabbits:
    Prevention of the ingestion of the doe’s faeces  only delayed, but did not prevent, the development of the normal intestinal microflora. This indicates that the faeces left behind by the doe has only limited role in the colonisation of the caecum by Bacteroides microorganisms

    DEVELOPMENT OF THE CAECAL MICROFLORA OF NEWBORN RABBITS DURING THE FIRST TEN DAYS AFTER BIRTH - KOVÁCS et al.
    Proceedings - 8th World Rabbit Congress – September 7-10, 2004 – Puebla, Mexico
    http://world-rabbit-science.com/WRSA-Proceedings/Congress-2004-Puebla/Papers/Physiology-Digestion/D-Kovacs-1.pdf.
    Gerhard Adam
    Patrick;

    I agree, but I think the more telling point is not whether the baby is exposed earlier or later, but rather the trend for people to be so germophobic that it becomes a detrimental objective because of irrational fears of exposure.
    Mundus vult decipi
    logicman
    ... the more telling point is not whether the baby is exposed earlier or later, but rather the trend for people to be so germophobic that it becomes a detrimental objective because of irrational fears of exposure.

    Agreed, Gerhard.

    I was aware of the importance of gut flora because, as a small child, it was pointed out to me by my father.  He grew food for the table and kept, at various times, rabbits, chickens, ducks and geese, so he had a great interest in the biological sciences - an interest which he passed on to me.

    In passing:
    my father kept his chickens in deep litter - about a meter of wood shavings and sawdust.  That litter was refreshed regularly and the smellier parts were used as fertilizer.  That was in the 1950s.  Scientists have now 'discovered' that deep litter is better than artificial fertilizers in some ways.  Strange that they should describe artificial fertilizer as 'conventional' and look on a natural product as a novelty.  How times change!

    Back on topic:
    as a child I helped my father in handling the above-described muck.  No gloves!  No nuffink!  This has obviously caused me no harm at all.  Now please excuse me while I - cough - dribble -
    suck some milk-toast through my gums.
    MikeCrow
    IRRATIONAL fears about creepy icky gross bugs and bacteria ....


    Oh, wait, never mind, carry on.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    I know you're just poking fun ... but it is interesting how many people feel that way despite the fact that they wouldn't be alive if it weren't for those gross, icky bugs and bacteria. :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    logicman
    ... creepy icky gross bugs and bacteria ....

    Let us now join hands and sing: "All things bright and beautiful ..."  :-)
    MikeCrow
    Did you miss the whole gross, creepy, bugs thing?

    How about we skip holding hands, and just sing,
    No telling where that hand's been ... ;)
    Never is a long time.
    logicman
    Mi Cro: you made me laugh out loud.
    rholley
    In our town-but-not-centre-of environment, one continual worry was deposits by dogs in public places and cats closer to home.  In recent years, the latter make me think of Toxoplasmosis.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    kerrjac
    "Cleverly-marketed products are creating a culture of 'germophobia', notes microbiologist Dr. Alex Berezow, and that is going to cause more problems than it solves."
    Good post, but I think he means 'different problems', not 'more problems'. 
    Hank
    Yes, that language was mine. I was paraphrasing him.