Sick Kids and the Boogie Man

It seems to be a latter-day principal that the crowning achievement of an individual is that s/he be safe.

Recently I was cleaning my computer keyboard with Formula 409, the bottle for which says that it’s “antibacterial.” On its face, I have no problem with this concept. Digging deeper, however, are several ironic contradictions, not just about bacteria, but about the whole notion of safety, cleanliness, and the real and psychological effects of it. Here are a few myths about bacteria, disease, immunization, and safety…

  1. Bacteria is the enemy. Trust me, we need bacteria for life itself. Without billions of healthy bacteria in our bodies, each of us would be dead in a few days.
  2. Bacteria cause disease. In general, only a tiny fraction of the bacteria in the world cause disease in humans. A teaspoon of healthy topsoil contains more bacteria than there are people on the world. Don’t panic. Dirt from the yard isn’t going to kill you.
  3. The flu shot can give you the flu. People who tell me that they actually GOT influenza after getting a vaccination are probably wrong in the first place. Influenza is just one of hundreds of upper respiratory diseases humans can contract, and unless a doctor does a specific serological antibody test for influenza, you could have practically anything. Additionally, the viral particles in the vaccine are “killed” chemically, so the worst they can do to you is give you minor “flu-like” symptoms. If you really did get the flu right after a vaccination, you just got unlucky in your timing. Finally, influenza makes you really sick, not just achy and feverish.
  4. Childhood immunizations are dangerous. This is a very popular form of panicky idiocy for younger parents who don’t remember the world in which children got seriously ill or died from diseases like chicken pox or measles. They hear anecdotal tales from friends, the internet, talk radio, or other specious sources that claim a child somewhere died or got seriously ill from being vaccinated. And while a child or two might actually get sick or die from an MMR or DPT, you can’t take your eye off the big picture, that tens of thousands or even millions of children will be spared if they are vaccinated.
  5. Cleaning is always good. There is a great cadre of scientists who believe as I do that one of the most important reasons for the resurgence of polio in the mid-twentieth century was that many American communities cleaned up a lot of their sewage systems and garbage collection systems, and as a result children were no longer exposed to low levels of poliovirus, which is transmitted by the oral-fecal route. Eventually, they were exposed to full-blown polio in the schools and had no immunity built up to it.
  6. Children should always be safe. This also sounds plausible on the surface, but is a lot like vaccinations. If you keep your kids too safe for too long, they won’t have the ability to deal with the real world when they are thrust into it. It’s natural for kids to sometimes cut themselves, fall out of trees and off their bikes, and even break their bones. Their bodies heal.
  7. You should prevent your kids from getting sick. There is a big push to keep kids home from school when they have colds and flu, and to stay home from work yourself if you are sick. This attitude is somewhat short-sighted. It may be nice to prevent your eight-year-old from coming home with the crud since you don’t like to see them suffer, but consider the nature of the immune system: once your body identifies and eradicates a pathogen, you will be immune to that disease. That’s why we get fewer colds when we get older. There are only about 200 rhinoviruses and coronaviruses, the viruses that causes the common cold, and when one infects you, your immune system identifies it and eliminates it, leaving antigens in your system to quickly identify it if you are exposed to it again. Vaccinations for the flu are a good idea, though they only provide short-term immunity. Keeping your kids home sets us all up for more problems in the future, since it prevents us all from being exposed to normal, albeit miserable, illnesses, leading to a generation of adults with relatively naive immune systems. Scientists call group exposure to these pathogens “herd immunity,” and it can be achieved through both exposure or vaccination. It protects us as a species.
  8. Life should be fair. Nothing disappoints me more about modern education than the concept that everyone should be treated fairly. Come on people – the world is harsh and competitive, and the sooner our kids learn this, the better. There’s no such thing as “everyone gets a trophy” day in the real world.


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