Domestic Animals, Dirt and Disease

I recently had learned some interesting things about the Native Americans (my favorite college course was Native American History but somehow it missed a lot of the stuff we now know about what happened around the time European settlers came). The first thing I learned was that there was a great plague that wiped out 90% of the Native population right when Europeans started to settle here. It has been suggested that this depopulation was not entirely related to the Europeans diseases we learned about – small pox, measles, typhoid fever – but may have included a particularly virulent mutation of the deadly Hantavirus – similar to the virus that has been found in the Southwest and has shown up in Appalachia. That doesn’t negate the devastation caused by European disease on the Native Americans though.

Why were European diseases so devastating to Native Americans? Of course Native Americans had never been exposed to European diseases so they couldn’t have formed an immunity to any of them. One of the things you have to wonder about is why did Europeans have so many diseases that were dangerous but didn’t wipe out nearly the entire population and Native Americans had so few but when they did strike they were so completely devastating? Domesticated animals – or the lack of them may be the answer.

Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond discusses how dense populations that lived with their livestock in Europe was what gave Europeans the advantage since Native Americans had so few domesticated animals (alpacas, llamas, dogs and some fowl). It could be argued that living with livestock and being exposed to so many more zoonotic diseases was actually a disadvantage because people got sick more often, however, being exposed to more disease can increase the immunity of the population and make them less susceptible to catastrophic outbreaks that could wipe out an entire civilization.

The Europeans had developed the ability to fight off these diseases because of antibodies. They help keep you healthy. You can develop your own antibodies and some are passed to you from your mother as a baby. If the mother had been exposed to a disease and survived she could have possibly passed that immunity onto her child. If you got sick from a disease but survived, many times you would be immune to that disease later in life. Our immune system is amazing at it’s ability to adapt and evolve.

But today we face something different. Our immune systems are getting out of whack. Our obsession with eliminating germs may be making things worse for us. Autoimmune diseases, allergies, asthma, and infections have been found to be more common in children that don’t live with animals. Researchers in Finland found that babies raised with dogs (and to a lesser degree cats) were found to be 44% less likely to develop ear infections and 29% less likely to need antibiotics. Speculation is that the germs a dog brings in with them help a baby’s immune system mature faster.

Other researchers are looking at the rate of allergies among children, which has increased 2 to 5 times in the last 30 years. What they found is that children that grow up on farms, particularly the Amish, have very low rates of allergies. It’s yet to be determined what exactly is responsible for this difference, but livestock are quite possibly part of the equation.

Of course the other side of the coin is our overuse of antibacterial products. The few germs that get through our new indoor environment (children on average now spend less than 8 minutes a day playing outside) are now wiped out with disinfectants and antibacterial soaps. Kids that were found to have parabans and/or triclosan, common antibacterial chemicals found in many household products, in their blood system were twice as likely to develop environmental allergies. Triclosan was found to increase the risk of food allergies, which can be fatal, two fold. The problem though isn’t necessarily the triclosan or parabans, it’s that these chemicals are keeping kids’ immune systems from developing by fighting off germs.

It seems that living with animals, playing outside and not using antibacterial products may have a benefit to kids and the greater population. I guess, in this case what doesn’t kill you actually does make you stronger.

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  1. Amen! Lets give our kids’ immune systems something constructive to do instead of waging misguided wars against their own bodies or harmless foods. Let them play with the animals and get dirty!

  2. I wholeheartedly agree! We played outside when we were kids. Barn, pasture, creek. Dogs, cats, horses, and we really didn’t wash our hands as often as Mom would have liked. :) Agricultural area, surrounded by almond and prune plum orchards, alfalfa, corn, etc. I haven’t had the flu since I was a kid (prob been 20 years), have few allergies, and other than a number of strep infections as a kid, don’t really ever get sick. My “city raised” coworkers, though. Man, yet get EVERYTHING.

    When I have kids, they’re gonna play in the dirt. :)

  3. I’m coming to this real late, but this is a topic I pay particular attention to, especially when it comes to antibacterial products and the hype around them. I quit my job in October 2011, and it was a major commute running around 3 hrs day total, not including the bus if I didn’t take my folding bike. Commuting on BART steadily for a few yrs kept me chronically ill. Working a service window at my desk kept me chronically ill because people really aren’t smart about germs despite being germ-phobic, when it comes to public places. I remember OSHA coming in and requiring us to put in hand-sanitizer, but even the recycling crew avoided it and preferred just good old soap and water for cleanliness (and I gotta mention they were probably the healthiest on the job despite picking up other people’s mess on a daily basis.)

    I was raised around cats, and so was the dood, so despite some sneezing (Lucy is part woolly mammoth), I do believe our immune systems are stronger. Raising chickens has been a good thing for us as well. And I used to work with a mom who would regularly take her little guys to visit friends who had pets, just to head those sensitivities and allergies off at the pass. Take care to use preventive care of course, when it comes to the vet and vaccinations, but don’t avoid animals.

    The other thing I’ve been concerned with in the past decade is body burden when it comes to aromatics and things that pass as cleansing agents. This is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. (note, I’m referring to synthetic aromatics above, although people can definitely OD on the naturals and become sensitized to those as well.)

  4. I read somewhere a while ago that an organization was using a peanut paste in Africa to help those starving and lacking proper nutrition. The article said that they were taking individuals that others had given up on being to far gone and bring them back with just the peanut paste. And someone asked about peanut allergies and what did they do then, the organization said that peanut allergies were almost non excitant outside of the United States. I find that pretty amazing and blame the over concern of germs being spread. It’s ok for kids to be sick, it will help them out when they are older.

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