Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are

>> Tuesday, August 5, 2008

I finished this book two months ago. I've procrastinated writing about it for no good reason. So I'm struggling a bit to remember it.

For a book that's solely about germs, bugs and disease, it's a very easy read. The author, Marlene Zuk, writes with wit and humor regarding her subjects, which include ebola, worms and STDs.

I loved reading about the movie Shivers, a Cronenberg film I'd never heard of before, about a rogue parasite that gives its victims an insatiable sexual appetite. Something I'd totally Netflix if it were available on dvd.

Her chapter regarding parasites (Parasites and Picking the Perfect Partner) is worth a double reading. Body Snatchers isn't the half of it. The next time you see a roly poly on the sidewalk instead of its natural habitat (grass), remember that it's the sick roly poly that crawls on the sidewalk. A parasite has hijacked its intelligence and gotten it to veer out into the danger zone.

For the humans, it was comforting to read that the next influenza outbreak probably won't be as bad as the 1917 epidemic. That flu strain reached epidemic proportions because the trenches of WWI allowed it to spread easily amongst the soldiers and later amongst the general population when the soldiers returned home.

One of the first chapters (Friendly Worms and the Price of Victory) references many studies in the increase in chronic disease amongst the Western world. Something that has not even been duplicated in other countries with high pollution such as China.

And yet some modern diseases would perplex the African tribesman or Parisian of centuries past. Asthma, for example, would have been virtually unknown, as would hay fever and allergic sensitivities to substances ranging from peanuts to pollen for pet hair. They, and most other people from before the twentieth century, as well as those from less developed nations today, lacked an entire suite of illnesses that seem to result from the immune system backfiring on itself, reacting to environmental inhabitants like pollen as if they were deadly invaders instead of benign foreign objects. (p. 39)

The hygiene hypothesis [by Dr. Erika von Matius] suggests that diseases such as asthma and allergies arise from an environment that is too clean, so that the normal stimulation of the immune system during infancy and early childhood is missing, impairing its ability to respond normally to actual pathogens but ignore harmless entities like pollen. In other words, day-to-day exposure to bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms provides a model for appropriate defense behavior, so that the immune system doesn't cry wolf every time an errant dust particle comes its way. (p. 41-2)
Best excuse not to clean ever!

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