Dr. Jamie Lorimer is a researcher at Oxford University, who focuses “…in particular on the rise of helminthic and other forms of biotherapy for tackling autoimmune and allergic disease.”[i] I read a fascinating paper[ii] by him yesterday that looked at helminths and health in relation to geography. The paper is a nice follow up to my last post, where I describe how different organisms can affect health differently depending on environment.
The main point of the paper is that helminths (Dr. Lorimer uses hookworm for his specific example) can either be parasitic (as in the case of excessive loads, in poor, undeveloped countries…and under these circumstances of excess, are pathogenic); ghosts (where, in industrialized world, we’ve eradicated them – and their absence has become pathogenic); or mutualists (where, in small, therapeutic doses, they can benefit their hosts).
Again, the same organism, under different circumstances, can affect health in different ways.
Dr. Lorimer mentions how our discovery of germs led to a frenzy of eradication. “…few microbes = better places.” However, as he points out, “Hookworms were eradicated from North America and Europe at the start of the 20th century through the development of antimicrobial drugs and improvements in sanitation. The absence of hookworms has been implicated in the rise of dysbiosis. The demise of the ‘old friends’ is understood to imbalance the immune system, turning it against self and generating a range of autoimmune, allergic and inflammatory diseases.” That is, absence is just as pathogenic as excess.
Thus, with helminths having become ghosts in the industrialized world, “Interventions like flush toilets, antibiotics and C-sections, which have been central to Western narratives of civilisation and development, have been recast as potentially pathological.”
(Hmm. I’ll keep my pathological toilet, thank you very much!)
My favorite quote though is this: “The story here is of health and safety going too far. An excessive desire to minimize risk and modulate microbial infection intensity creates a model of biosecurity that is prone to autoimmunity: ‘a self-protective syndrome whose attempts to exclude difference are ultimately self-destructive.’”
Completely coincidentally, earlier today, as I was starting to write this post, an article popped up in my inbox from one of my automated searches: One in 20 adolescents in Australia have food allergy: study.[iii]
“One in 20 adolescents in Australia aged 10 to 14 have a food allergy….’There has been an increase in prevalence of allergies in Australia, one in 10 babies aged 12 months now have a food allergy’ food allergy expert and chief executive officer of Anaphylaxis Australia, Maria Said explained…’Have we created environments that are too clean so our immune system comes unstuck with something as natural as a food protein’ the expert wondered.”
What I wonder is, what does it take for the scientific community to accept something as a truth?
[ii] Lorimer, J. Parasites, ghosts and mutualists: a relational geography of microbes for global health. Rogyal Geographical Society. 2017. Doi:10.1111/tran.12189.