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Not a Battle, But a Housecleaning

Written by Philip Incao, M.D.   
Wednesday, 01 June 2005 00:00
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Fear of infection is increasingly common today, but it is based on a misunderstanding. Most of us imagine that we are uninfected when we are well and infected when we are sick.

We therefore imagine that a cold, sore throat, flu, etc., are the result of a virus or bacterium having recently entered our body and having directly caused the irritation and inflammation that we are suffering, i.e., the pain, fever, mucus and other familiar symptoms. We further imagine it is a good thing if we never get these inflammatory symptoms, because it means that we have a strong immune system which guards our body from becoming infected.

I once saw a young African man in my practice who impressed me with his calm dignity and his radiant good health. I asked him what his parents had done when, as a child, he had come down with a fever. He replied that they had wrapped him in blankets to get him sweating. “Did they ever take your temperature?” I asked. He laughed and shook his head saying, “No, it was different from what is done here.” We often hear that American medicine is the most advanced in the world. This is true in some areas of health care, but in other areas we could use a little of the deeply rooted wisdom that still informs some of the folk medicine in the developing world. I think this particularly applies to our modern concept and treatment of the illnesses we commonly call “infections.”

HousecleaningWhen we come down with a cold or a flu, most of us imagine that some stress or something else has weakened our “defenses” or our “resistance” and allowed “a bug” (a virus or bacterium) to enter our body, where it multiplies and attacks us from within. We think of this as “an infection,” that the new bug within us is making us sick, and that we will feel better as soon as our immune system has killed it off. When we don’t feel better soon enough, we might seek remedies or antibiotics to kill the bug more effectively.

This pretty much describes the way almost everyone today, physicians included, thinks about what I refer to in this article as an acute infectious/ inflammatory illness like a cold, flu or sore throat. Yet this commonly held picture does not correspond to the facts. It is a deceptive misunderstanding that in itself is a characteristic sign of the simplistic, weakened and fear-based thinking that hinders progress in many areas of life today.

If we define infection as the presence within us of foreign microorganisms, i.e., bacteria and viruses, then all of us are continually infected from the day we are born until we die. We all harbor trillions of microbes all the time, including various disease germs, yet we only occasionally get sick. Most of us are quite happy to never or seldom come down with an acute infectious/inflammatory fever, cold or sore throat, thinking that we therefore must have a strong immune system which guards our body from becoming “infected.” That too is a deception, and a dangerous one, that fools us into thinking we are healthy when the reality is otherwise.