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Anna Crist

student researcher , University of Oregon

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Purell now, Bacteri-ell later?

The hygiene hypothesis, the idea that “too much cleanliness prevents the development of a well-balanced immune response”(Sironi and Clerici, 2010), has received a lot of support and also criticism. It has recently been challenged by the hypothesis of “early immune challenge”, which states that a lack of appropriate immune stimulation during early childhood might account for the increased development of allergies in industrialized countries (Kramer et al, 2013). This proposal places less emphasis on excessive hygienic practices and focuses more on the insufficient exposure to specific environmental microbes, particularly those from non-urban environments, as the reason behind the rise of atopic disease. While different, both hypotheses point to the beneficial health affects of some microbes.

What do you think is the reason for increased allergy levels in industrialized countries? Do you think that a concoction of the “right” microbial species in the form of a lotion, drink, or inhalant (aka "Bacteri-ell") could be a future replacement for natural exposure to beneficial microbes?
Instead of using hand sanitizers like Purell, do you see a future where people from some regions of the world are unsanitizing their hands with “Bacteri-ell”?

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    Apr 30 2013: In our haste to tout antibacterial products, let's not forget the amazing benefits sanitization provides us as well! Do we really want a world where surgeons don't have to sterilize their hands or run their instruments through an autoclave before performing an operation? Where sushi chefs are free to touch as they please? Joseph Lister, Ignaz Semmelwies, and Lupe Hernandez performed a great service to society with the inventions of antiseptic and antibacterial hand washes.

    I question the argument that overuse of antibacterials causes a rise in allergies. For one thing, antibiotic agents have been around for a very long time. Honey is a natural and very effective antimicrobial that humans have been in contact for at least 8,000 years and was used by the Ancient Egyptians as an embalming agent.

    Furthermore, there is a big question of correlation vs. causality. It could be that our overly sterile lifestyle is causing an influx of allergies, or it could simply be that globalization and market integration have allowed people access to foods that they have not eaten before and thus discover new allergies. Food allergies are also very affected by ancestry. Lactose intolerance (or 'tolerance' as my high school bio teacher liked to say) evolved from a rare mutation that allowed humans to digest mammalian milk. Humans are the only mammals that consume another mammals milk as adults, and the majority of the worlds population is naturally lactose intolerant. Due to this one genetic mutation, a portion of the population can digest lactose. Lactose 'tolerance' has a distinct clinal distribution (geographic pattern) that shows the evolution of this gene occurred in Europe and North America, coincidentally the regions more recently inhabited by humans, and not in Africa and Asia where the earliest human populations came from. Approaching from a more anthropological perspective, we see there may be a simpler explanation for food allergy prevalence.

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