How down and dirty could save your life

Dirty faced woman
Our immune systems might have the dirt on germs – but we still need to wash our hands all the time

No, not beauty treatment or anything like that.

Forget Dead Sea mud and all the pampering clinics. This is good eat-dirt-to-make-healthy-bodies thinking – otherwise known as the “hygiene hypothesis”.

Oh, and you’ve got to do it before you’re more than twelve months old. After that, your immune system is no longer working in turbo mode to remember all the germs it knows how to conquer.

Know your enemy

Actually, the body does keep on discovering these as you get older, but not at the same pace.

Kids who grow up on a farm for instance, are more resistant to allergies and infection. Even early exposure to animal faeces and cockroach droppings seems to be beneficial – in weird conflict with keeping clean and washing our hands all the time.

But there is reason in the madness.

Our immune systems learn how to recognise and fight life-threatening micro-organisms in later life. They even acquire memories of germs they’ve never encountered – hostile pathogens never experienced before that have never entered our bodies.

Segue fast forward to adulthood and the same principle applies.

Developing immunity

Because it seems around half of us have developed an immunity to flu so strong, we just never come down with it any more – no coughs, sneezes, headaches, fever. They just pass us by. Previous infections have built up our resistance, so that our bodies can tell flu viruses to get lost.

And yep, it seems to work against pandemic flu too – we’re able to withstand oncoming waves of bird flu, swine flu and maybe even SARS as well. Not from eating dirt, but from previous exposure to milder infections that teach our immune systems how to handle the real villains.

Kinda like the analogy with cowpox and smallpox.

For centuries, smallpox was a killer virus that caused misery for millions with pus-filled blisters all over the body. But in 1796, Edward Jenner, a doctor in Gloucestershire, discovered that previous exposure to cowpox – a familiar problem on farms – produced immunity to smallpox.

“Vacca” is the Latin word for cow – from which we get “vaccine,” a protection from viruses – and “vaccination”, the jab we get to protect us. Actually for cowpox it’s a series of tiny jabs dipped in vaccine solution – a mild reaction blister develops, but disappears in two weeks – and we are protected.

Washing hands is always vital

All of which does not mean that we should ignore daily hygiene, or that it’s safe to run around with dirty hands.

It was another doctor, Joseph Lister, who discovered that surgery patients were dying because infections were transferred from one case to another by surgeons who did not realise the significance of washing hands between treatments.

And yes, he’s the guy after whom Listerine is named, originally an antiseptic, but now a mouthwash.

We might have immunities, but there’s still plenty of germs out there we haven’t encountered yet – all too ready to do the dirty on us if we stop being careful. (Tweet this)

And the Lister story is significant because it’s about transferring germs, spreading them on contact – either directly, or by things we touch in common with other people – door handles, mobiles, keyboards, knives and forks – what the medics call “fomites”.

Hygiene to protect others

Our immunities aren’t all the same either. So while WE might be safe from a particular germ, the kid at the next desk in school – or the colleague alongside us at work – other people might not be.

How fair is it to give them our germs – infect them with a bug we’re immune to – because we’re too forgetful to wash our hands?

Yes, “down and dirty” teaches our bodies to be strong when we’re infants. It’s also how we need to fight germs when we’re older. All or nothing, brute force, get rid of them.Rediscover Hygiene logo

Because living in communities of others as we do – all of us different – there’s no one-size-fits-all protection we can share.

Except washing hands.

Life-saving habits

Except doing everything to keep germs away from any of us who are vulnerable. To stop any cross-contamination. To keep everything around us clean and germ-free for the same reason. Even to using a Hypersteriliser to sterilise the living space around us.

Dead and gone, germs can’t touch us.

So let’s give them their own dirty treatment straight back again.

Drop dead – antibiotics won’t save you any more

Bandaged Mummy
Hike up hygiene habits –
or it could be the end of us

At time of writing, current world population is 7,274,081,952 and counting – already up 2,300 since starting this sentence. Check it out on the amazing Worldometer.

“Over-population” cry a lot of experts – and in certain circumstances, they might be right. Not for the whole planet, but for the bit they’re putting under the microscope.

Too many people for local food production, not enough water resources – whatever.

Human beings by numbers

One hundred years ago, we weren’t even half that number of people – with a whole great horde of us recently killed in World War One (34 million), or in the Spanish flu epidemic that followed (up to 50 million).

Seems every so often, if we get to be too many, a war or disease comes along and chops us back.

Well yes, but only on a local basis.

An island of us

If you really think there’s too many of us, it’s kind of a jolt to think that every single one of us alive today could fit shoulder to shoulder on the island of Zanzibar – 7,274,082,381 of us (and counting) in just 1,023 square miles.

A lot of things make us so prolific – advancing technology, clever agriculture – and most of all revolutions in medicine.

Joseph Lister’s first insistence about washing hands was in the early 1800s. Our population doubled.

Sir Alexander Fleming’s discovery of pencillin – the first true antibiotic – was a hundred years later. Our population doubled again – and kept right on going.

How far will we get?

That depends on our hygiene levels.

No more miracles

Because the latest nasty is that antiobiotics are not the miracles they once were.

All kinds of bugs have learned how to resist them – and more are developing every day.

One by one, our defences are failing.

Now according to the National Academy of Sciences, neither another World War, nor a global pandemic would be enough to stop our rocketing climb in numbers. We’ll top 10 billion by the end of the century, easy peasy.

Uh huh.

Everything at once

Except how about more than one pandemic at once?  A whole storm of them all at the same time? Like Ebola, the plague, smallpox, SARS, flu, polio and AIDS – all clobbering us together with no treatment against any of them?

Are we about to be wiped out?

Hey! Back to Earth!

It was Lister who pushed our numbers up by telling us to wash out hands, remember?

But be honest, how many of us do that as often as we should?

And how many remember WHY?

To stop the germs getting to us,right? To give those viruses and bacteria no chance to touch us.

Hygiene habits

If we did nothing else – if we washed our hands all the time – we might survive.

But to be certain, we need to hike our hygiene habits a whole lot higher.

It was right back alongside Lister that Louis Jacque Thenard discovered hydrogen peroxide in the Nineteenth Century.

As a germ killer, it was immediately a trailblazer – safe and easy to use, no virus or bacteria could survive contact with it.

Two hundred years later, the technology has moved on.

Force field

Ionised and dispersed into an ultra-fine mist, hydrogen peroxide reaches everywhere, grabbing at pathogens by electrostatic attraction, oxidising their cells to shreds by shoving oxygen atoms at them.

Our antibiotics might not work, but our first line of defence sure as hell does.

Like a force-field round a spaceship, hydrogen peroxide takes out any germ that comes at us. We’ll be OK, though we might not make that magic 10 billion.


Well, not all of us have access to hydrogen peroxide or the auto-robots that disperse it.  And not all of us will remember to be careful and practice high-level hygiene at all times.

At least we stand a chance though.

So when the Doc looks at you and shakes his head, it might not be the end of the world.

As long as you’re not relying only on antibiotics, you’ll live.