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An insider's guide to getting to know your good germs from your bad germs

11-24-2011 14:42 BJT

BEIJING, Nov. 24 (Xinhuanet) -- Although improvements in hygiene over the past century have significantly curtailed sickness and disease, certain misunderstandings have arisen over just how clean we need to be. Here Dr. Nathaniel Goldman dishes the dirt on dirt.

Can you tell us what misconceptions about germs exist?

There are two main known groups of germs that are directly important for us: bacteria and viruses. Bacteria are real cells that lead an autonomous existence. Viruses are really packed gene units that need cells (bacterial or human) to multiply. Tuberculosis and Strep throat are caused by bacteria. Common cold and flu are caused by viruses. Many people often don't know that difference and consequently misuse an antimicrobial to treat an illness.

There is also an increasing recognition that germs are an intimate part of our environment. We depend on them for our health much more than previously thought. We need bacteria in the gut to make vitamin K, for example. In fact, the key to understanding our relationship with germs is good old Darwinism, which explains the interdependence between species and also why some germs may have devastating consequences on human health.

Can we promote more good germs through actively consuming them?

It seems that certain strains of bacteria promoted in dairy or non-dairy drinks are beneficial to the gut's flora. However we still do not understand how this works and don't know which bacteria does what in the system, or even if we are all equal regarding the potential benefit of these "functional foods." Some experts have said that at the current concentration, one would have to drink liters of these products to see effects.

A realistic approach is to keep our gut a welcoming culture environment for friendly bacteria. This means eating a broad variety of foods that will provide the chemical components necessary for the growth of a balanced bacteria population.

How does not exposing our children to any germs put them at risk?

There is a growing understanding of the role of germs, and parasites, in our tolerance to our environment. Our immune system is innately tuned to deal with parasites and parasites evolved to deal with our immune system: one is not doing well without the other. What is often called the hygiene hypothesis - growing up in a world too much devoid of germs - is that the absence of our counterpart parasites, not expected by our immune system, disrupts its equilibrium, leading, for example, to the apparently growing incidence of allergies.

However, one should not forget how beneficial to health progress in sanitation and prevention through vaccination has been.

Is it foolish to go around rubbing Purell hand sanitizer into our palms obsessively?

It is certainly not foolish to clean hands because it helps avoid accumulation of dirt. Cleaning them with a disinfectant hand sanitizer however will promote the growth of bacteria resistant to the disinfectant.

What lessons can be learned from Chinese medicine or Chinese culture?

Chinese food is usually cooked at high temperatures and consumed on the spot and there is a strong tradition of separating raw from cooked on the preparation table. If you respect these rules, you can afford to have a less than ideally clean kitchen!

Nathanael Goldman, MD

Pediatrician, Department of Pediatrics, Beijing United Family Hospital

Dr. Goldman, from Belgium, received his medical degree and a master's degree in Health Systems Management from the University of Brussels. Dr. Goldman also has a diploma in Tropical Medicine from the Tropical Medicine Institute in Antwerp. He holds an MSc in Public Health with an orientation on Health Systems Management from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

In addition to working professionally as a pediatrician in Belgium and China, Dr. Goldman has worked on medical projects in Rwanda, North Korea and China with the international medical relief organization Doctors Without Borders.

Dr. Goldman is a member of the Belgium National Medical Doctors' Association. He speaks English, French and conversational Chinese.

Editor:Wang Xiaomei |Source: Xinhua

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