Let them eat dirt

Have you ever noticed the ebb and flow of waiting room toys? Five years ago when I first visited a public health clinic for my kid’s vaccinations there were toys galore. A couple of years later, for my second little person’s visit—no toys to be found. Why the change? I asked. H1N1, the effort of sterilizing the articles, the panic of parents as they tried to coral their kids from potential pathogens were some of the reasons. And, I confess, any place that hosts sick kids and hands-on toys at the same time has always turned me off. But, optometrist offices, dentist offices, libraries—bring on the germs. It always seemed to me that a bit of exposure could only make a body stronger; ergo those vaccinations, right?

It seems that my supposition has roots. A 2008 report published in ScienceDaily on childhood leukemia made the connection that daycare kids have lower instances of leukemia compared to their stay-at-home counterparts. Kids’ immune systems need exposure to common infections early in life in order to learn defence. Proponents of this theory believe that if an immune system isn’t challenged early it might mount inappropriate responses to infections later in life, thereby provoking the development of leukemia.

Similarly, one reason postulated for the tremendous rise in the life-threatening allergies in youth is the “hygiene hypothesis”. This theory suggests that because we live cleaner lives, our bodies don’t need to fight germs as much as they once did. Bodies are no longer being exposed to the variety of bacteria, viruses and parasitic worms early in life that are necessary to prime immune systems. When a person’s body doesn’t have the instruction that exposure provides, their immune systems can go haywire shifting toward developing allergic responses and away from fighting infections. The hyper-sanitation of our environments—hand sanitizer, antibacterial soap, Febreeze, and avoidance are potentially keeping kids illness-free in the short term, but not necessarily doing them a service in the long term.

I even heard a report of real people actually bringing bubble wrap to hotel rooms, and encasing the places to safeguard their little ones from germs and dents.

Are the efforts we’re making to keep kids safe really working in their favour? In some instances, yes. Vaccinations are important to children’s health. Only a few generations ago mortality and health deficits from mumps, measles, pertussis, polio, etc were high. Science has come a long way in ensuring these diseases are managed. But, these advancements have been made in the laboratory, by scientists, through clinical trials and peer consensus. There are risks associated with vaccinations, as there will be with any medical procedure, but there’s a general consensus that their benefits outweigh their risk.

On the other hand, the oversanitation of our environment is perception driven, and the data isn’t there to prove its value. Parents have a hard time in this information age sifting accurate medical information from erroneous sources. Big businesses see this and produce products to meet want. Advertisers get in on the game and make these items as attractive or essential as they need to be. Consumers buy them, buy into them, and promote them amongst their peers. A mindset is established, and, like a stain that sets in, once a mind set is established, it is hard to wash away.

I think we need to keep a reasonable focus on what is proven to be harmful or helpful. Keep the kids clean, but allow their bodies the right to learn defence. Heal them when they’re sick, but don’t incubate them when it’s just a common illness. Be moderate.

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