LETTER- Microbes not so benign

At the risk of starting a flame war with Marlene Condon, whose writing I typically enjoy, I'd like to call attention to the fact that many people would disagree with the statement, "The reality is that the majority of microbes (probably about 99 percent) pose no harm at all to humans" [Letter, "Plain soap will do," July 31].

In lectures at the UVA Medical School, Paul W. Ewald (author of The Evolution of Infectious Disease and Plague Time) pointed out that microbes may turn out to play a major role in heart disease, many cancers, and a number of other chronic illnesses. 

Infection is now considered as good if not a better predictor of heart disease than cholesterol. The Epstein-Barr virus– the germ that causes the highly infectious mononucleosis– is associated with naso-pharyngial cancer as well as multiple sclerosis. The EB virus causes respiratory disease symptoms that are easily confused with a cold. 

Ewald's research suggests that people concerned about health issues would be better served to consider the role of microbes in all sorts of diseases, including the mysterious, intractable "psychological disorders," "allergies," and perhaps even certain forms of autism.

The reality is that our relationship with microbes (which some estimate outnumber the cells of our body 10-1) is extremely complicated. Yes, introducing antiseptics appears to have unfortunate effects, but there are other– perhaps more crucial– variables no one seems to be considering, such as the rhythmic nature of the immune system, its susceptibility to stress, and whether its rhythms can be maintained or restored through behavior.

One thing is certain: crowding large numbers of people into a single space is going to give germs plenty of evolutionary elbow room to do what they were designed to do: reproduce and feed on us. Just check out the literature on infection in nursing homes. Granted, school children aren't nursing-home residents, but school children are under chronic stress, which can dampen immunity.

Soap and water will help, but it's a band-aid on a much bigger problem that will probably be thrown into sharper relief in the coming years as we learn more and think more realistically about our relationship with "nature."

John Alton