Immune systems matter

Plans and demands for school reopenings are coming in fast and furious from government and nongovernment organizations alike.  Some are hundreds of pages long, requiring a phalanx of Ph.D.s to sort through the details before implementation.

What seems universally clear is that no one is taking into account that the vast majority of us have immensely powerful immune systems that play a critical role in keeping us healthy and alive.

One plan calls for using sanitizing spray on all classroom surfaces multiple times per day; that children use hand sanitizer upon entering and exiting the classroom; and that all children and staff wear masks for the entire school day and, of course, ensure social distancing.  The bureaucrats at the CDC would be proud of the results.

But all of these "specialists" would have ignored the fact that from the day we are born we are assaulted by germs — by the millions, if not billions.  Our very existence is dependent on a robust immune system — that is, the ability of our bodies to fight off any invasion of bacteria, viruses, fungus, mold, and other pathogens.  Fortunately, we were created with a powerful internal standing army of cells ready to protect us in each battle and capable of winning most wars.

In order for our immune system to be prepared for those battles, it has to train regularly and bring new recruits to the effort.  Even before we are born, our immune system is exposed to germs and working to protect us.  The result is that our body creates germ-specific special ops fighters to defeat a variety of enemies that life throws against us.

Each time we are exposed to new or old germs, our immune system grows smarter and stronger.  It is healthy and necessary for our very survival to be exposed to different germs and to recover to fight another day.  If we purposely prevent such exposure, we may gain in the short term, but we may also lose in devastating ways in the long term.

You may remember a Seinfeld episode titled "The Bubble Boy" in which a boy needed to live inside a plastic bubble because he did not have a functioning immune system.  It didn't end well for the "Bubble Boy" when his germ-free bubble was violated and he was exposed to germs.

Modern society has gone overboard with deploying antibacterial soaps, lotions, and cleaning products.  They indiscriminately kill germs, yes, but they also wipe out the good bacteria that help maintain a strong and diverse microbiome.  "Kills up to 99.9% of common gems," reads one bottle of hand sanitizer.  Everyone has a microbiome, a collection of more than 100 trillion (!) microbes that live on and in our bodies, the majority in our large (and clearly crowded) intestine.  The more diverse your individual microbiome, the healthier you are.

Research indicates that early exposure to a variety of microbes may help lower the risk of developing conditions like asthma, allergies, and even infectious diseases.  Think of it this way: if you exercise regularly and your body is fit, you are less likely to be injured, be overweight, have cardiovascular disease or diabetes.  When you stop exercising, your level of fitness declines, along with all the benefits.  Your immune system works in the same way: stimulate it regularly, such as when a child plays in the dirt, and you are more likely to win the battles against the dangerous germs, including COVID-19.

With COVID-19, we have gone "Bubble Boy" sterilization crazy, and it is not helping us.  We now sanitize everything: bus seats, door handles, gas pumps, purchased products, our bodies.  We are cleaning our homes (and some offices) as if they were an extension of a hospital's ICU.  I have one patient who told me he comes home from the market, takes all of his clothes off outside, hoses himself off, puts the clothes in a bag, and then takes a hot shower.  The fear of COVID-19 has driven us to impossible and unhealthful behavior.