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Rabbitbrush Rambler: The battle of the microbes

Posted: Tuesday, Feb 12th, 2013

Today, the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, I am thinking about tiny microbes, too small to see, the good ones and the bad ones that keep us well or kill us.

When he was delivering his memorable Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln was not only feeling ill; he was coming down with smallpox, if history is correct. He survived, but about one third of smallpox victims in the U.S. in the 1800s died, as did his brother Robert.

In Europe, one of every seven childhood fatalities was then being caused by this disease. When we visit old cemeteries and see headstones with names of entire families and dates within a few days of each other, we should remember how many resulted from diseases that we seldom think about today.

Despite quarantines and other common practices to control diseases, many efforts were futile, but Edward Jenner tried vaccination in the 1700s, and by the time I was a child, smallpox vaccinations had become mandatory in this country. Kids my age have scars on the upper arm or thigh to help explain why they are alive.

Eradicating that terrible disease worldwide required a full-scale war on it, and I enjoy boasting that one of my college classmates, Dr. Donald A. Henderson, led the team conducting the international effort that wiped out smallpox by 1980. Today billions of younger people have had no experience with smallpox, and neither do they have any immunity to it if it should somehow reappear.

Indians in colonial American died in droves, as native people had no immunity to diseases like smallpox or measles when newcomers arrived on this continent, bringing their germs with them. The battle in the modern world still continues against diseases like TB, measles, and whooping cough, which are on the rise again, while many people, living in denial, refuse to be inoculated.

I remember FDR in his wheelchair and my next door neighborís death from polio, a disease which is still out there among people without vaccinations. A vigorous campaign now is under way to immunize Pakistanís Muslims, but a fanatical leader in Nigeria has opposed vaccination, so polio is spreading there.

This winter flu has been bad on the East Coast and is increasing on its Westward trek. And it will get you if you donít watch out, becauseÖ

(1) People think they are too busy, too smart, or too healthy to need shots, although they can be conveniently obtained in many places and cost little compared with lost work, over-the-counter nostrums, prescriptions, hospitals, or undertakers.

(2) Sick people spread germs among healthy people. Who knows whether the guy grilling your burger is sick and working anyway because he has no paid sick leave? Did someone sneeze on the buffet at your Super Bowl party?

(3) Cleanliness is next to godliness, and sometimes even better. Avoid crowds and donít shake hands with anyone ó not even with your pastor or visiting dignitaries. Wash your hands frequently with soap. Also, wash fresh veggies and fruit carefully with well-diluted solutions of peroxide and vinegar or with a couple of drops of Clorox in the water, the way kids in the Peace Corps or expatriates like me did to stay well when far from home. (See the Internet for instructions.)

(4) Although a small minority of the population truly has genuine health-related reasons to not be inoculated, donít rely on something that Mom, a friend, or your guru said. Ask your MD or read reliable public information about inoculations, because advice or your own condition may have changed now.

(5) Flu microbes constantly mutate, and their sources also change, so flu shots must be reformulated every year, requiring a new shot. The pandemic of Spanish flu, which killed more people in 1918-1919 than the First World War did, was not the same as Asian flu which mutated into Hong Kong flu or swine flu or other varieties before, between, or afterward.

Germs and diseases have no respect for outmoded notions about the world we live in. Be glad that we have the CDC and scientists with expert training, talent, and resources, who work constantly to stay one step ahead of next yearís assault by microbes.

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