Of Germs and Worms

Germaphobia gripped my mother like an iron glove when I was in pre-school. I was born in the era when companies like Nestlé began aggressively marketing to mothers that it’s baby formula was more nutritional than mother’s breast milk, so when I began to frequently get sick with different viruses and colds as an infant and when I first entered public school, I was sick more often than I was well. My mother thought she had failed me. At the first sign of a sniffle, she would cart me off to the pediatrician where I was promptly given a lengthy dosage of antibiotics.

lactogen baby formula

I was raised on baby formula that was held in esteem by many in the scientific community, and perhaps this was the very thing that caused me to be so frequently sick once I went to public school. I remember missing my Valentine’s Day party several years in a row due to my annual bout of strep throat and tonsillitis, typically occurring back-to-back. I thank my stars that sanitizer had not yet been invented, or my household would have been using quantities of it enough to give the manufacturer’s shareholders a big smile and a fat wallet. As it were, the big pharmaceutical companies made plenty per capita in my household, as I took many bouts of antibiotics to get over many illnesses as a child.

My father’s views on dirt and germs were formed on his family farm where he grew up. Living on a family farm in the 1930s and 40s was no picnic when it came to disease and illness. Prior to antibiotics, when a farm animal got sick, it was typically put down quickly to avoid further loss to the family’s food supply rather than be treated with antibiotics. In the family photos of my father as a little boy, he is often shown wearing nothing but overhauls, covered in mud and probably a few other things that would make mothers a few decades later uneasy.

Today, scientists are just beginning to understand how the human immune system is triggered and how it responds to its environment. Allergy sufferers have applied pressure to scientists to take a closer look at helminthic therapy, otherwise known as “worm therapy”. This approach is based on the theory that inhabitants of 1st world countries have heightened immune systems due to the elimination of certain parasitic organisms that have existed for thousands, perhaps millions of years within the human body. Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, asthma, hay fever, and food and environmental allergies include ailments that have been pegged as symptomatic of heightened immune systems. Scientific studies have shown that the introduction of hook worms into the intestines of people who have these symptoms alleviates and often, eradicates the occurrence of these symptoms and often improves other health issues such as fatigue.

I had first heard about helminthic therapy on Ira Glass’ radio program aired on NPR, This American Life in 2010. An update to the program informed listeners that Jason Lawrence, the allergy sufferer whose told his story to Ira, was forced to shut down his business by the FDA for selling his parasites in the United States. The last I heard he had moved to Mexico so he could continue to offer this treatment to those willing to experiment with it. But the story hasn’t stopped there.

Fueled by research conducted by Joel Weinstock, chief of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts-New England Medical Center, the mainstream press has covered the story of helminthic therapy for several years.

Fast forward to today and I’m encouraged by the research showing up on the internet focused on this approach for treating the symptoms of a heightened immune system. A Facebook and a yahoo group has formed and several websites promote the therapy, one offering an online interview, the first step to gain access to the worms in a pill form.

Perhaps the lessons of the recent antibiotic era have opened people’s eyes to options other than chemicals. Any attempt to eradicate germs has proven to be impossible and only results in throwing out the baby with the bath water. The lesson of working with nature, rather than against it, has taken a long time to take hold, but perhaps it’s not too late. I feel very lucky not to have any allergies that I know of. The New York Times reported on a study in 2004 supporting the link between people who had high fevers as infants and their low likelihood for developing allergies later in life. So perhaps my childhood illnesses did pay off later in life and maybe old Mom knew what she was doing all along!

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