Are we too Clean?

Image by Wellcome Library

Over the last century we have experienced a large rise in life expectancy. This is most probably due to generally increased standards of living within society, including better sewage facilities, and better nutrition. Also, development of antibiotics, (drugs taken to kill bacteria and reduce infections) and various antimicrobial cleaners (for example, commonly used soaps and handgels in the home and the workplace which also kill bacteria and other microbes) have increased the ability to combat a range of infectious diseases. However, with the rise in sanitisation and use of antibiotics, concerns have arisen with the occurence of some strains of bacteria that are resistant to all known antibiotics. This has prompted the question: Are we too clean?

Being too clean can reduce the health of our immune system. If it doesn’t get stimulated enough then we may not develop enough antibodies to different things, leaving us vulnerable to new diseases. For example a sort of stomach bug, called Campylobacter, makes people much more ill in the West than in the developing world. Some believe this may be because people in some countries get exposed to it more and so have a background immunity to it.

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Over the last 100 years we have also experienced a sharp increase in allergies such as asthma, which used to be seen as a rare disease and now affects about 1 in 10 children in the UK. To explain this some have put forward the “hygiene hypothesis” which proposes that the steep rise in allergic conditions, including asthma, over the last century can be attributed to a lack of ‘real’ infections to react to. This results in the immune system becoming over-sensitive and reacting to normally harmless environmental components like dust and pollen. There are conflicting opinions on this however, with reports indicating other attributors to the rise in asthma, for example the increased exposure to chlorine as a result of conditions of public swimming pools.

Image by Wellcome Library/Anthea Sieveking

Millions of people depend on sanitisation. For example, as well as fighting infectious diseases, antibiotics are used by farmers to increase the production of meat and milk, and hospital theatres require extensive sanitisation for the health of patients and staff. It is also a fact that the incidence of death caused by infectious and parasitic diseases has decreased from 33% of all deaths in 1880 to only 17% of all deaths now. Though it is difficult to say whether this is purely down to an increase in use of antibiotics and antimicrobial cleaners or a general rise in standards of living in society.

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