Mr. Hookworm saves the day!

I’ve written before about the hygiene hypothesis (here and here). To recap: filth is bad except when it’s good. We seem to be discovering a lengthening list of diseases that either didn’t exist or were quite rare back when squalor was mankind’s boon companion. And now that we’ve cleaned up our collective act, autoimmune diseases from asthma to Inflammatory Bowel Disease are billowing like mushroom clouds. When people blame the environment for their ills, they are usually thinking of pollution. Big joke on us to to learn that the problem is pollution’s mirror image. Savage Clean.

Your immune system is a powerful and high-strung jungle cat. It likes nothing better than to rip into its hapless prey. But it’s not in the jungle anymore. Pacing back and forth in its scrubbed little modern cell, it is impatient for action. But nothing ever happens. Pacing, pacing back and forth, back and forth. Eyes darting, nostrils flaring. It hates the smell of disinfectant, and so help me, if they don’t turn off this goddamned Muzak, somebody’s going to get hurt.

So it goes.

I used to think of the hygiene hypothesis as a quirky story, but it’s gone mainstream, gaining tremendous media play in the past few months. Here’s the Wall Street Journal bouncing some commentary off the movie Babies.

But the best story of all, and the one I recommend most highly, is this
Radiolab episode on parasites. One of the pieces is about a man with debilitating allergies who decides to give himself hookworm in the hope that it will cure him. How does he do this? After all, you can’t just buy hookworms online. Instead, he flies to the smelliest part of Africa and walks around barefoot in other people’s poop. It worked: he got hookworm, and he lost his allergies. You might say that he gave his caged panther a chew toy, and everybody was better off for it.

The coda to this story is that hygiene hypothesis has taken off so quickly that now you can buy hookworms online. Well, actually you have to fly to Mexico to pick them up, but will sell you live hookworm eggs so that you can effect your own “helminth induced immune modulation.” My favorite sterilized clinical language on the site reads as follows: “Hookworm ova are collected from a known source.” I.e., “we poke through the poop of our prized hookworm host.”

You know, one of these days we’re going to discover that squeaky-clean prose is bad for the brain.

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