Anne Weiss recently repointed me to an interview with the epidemiologist Tom Jefferson about swine flu. Jefferson, let me stress, is a good epidemiologist. In the interview he makes a point I make on this blog, that research is heavily shaped by two questions: 1. what will make money? 2. what will be good for my career? (How curious that economists — with the exception of Veblen and Robin Hanson — spend so much more time on #1 than #2.) For example:
Interviewer Why aren’t researchers interested in [other viruses]?
Jefferson: It’s easy: They can’t make money with [them]. With rhinoviruses, RSV and the majority of the other viruses, it’s hard to make a lot of money or a career out of it. Against influenza, though, there are vaccines, and there are drugs you can sell. And that’s where the big money from the pharmaceuticals industry is. It makes sure that research on influenza is published in the good journals. And that’s why you have more attention being paid there, and the entire research field becomes interesting for ambitious scientists.
Because Jefferson is willing to tell the truth about virology, it is interesting what he doesn’t say.
The big glaring gap is that in a discussion about how to avoid getting sick he says nothing about improving immune function. Not one word. He isn’t a doctor. He doesn’t work for a drug company. There is no obvious reason he fails to discuss this. He is reflecting the blindness of his whole field, I believe. It isn’t a mystery how to improve immune function: Sleep better and eat more fermented food. I have blogged before (here, here, and here, for example) about how widely this supremely important question — how to improve immune function — is ignored.
The other gap in the interview is more subtle. Jefferson recommends hand-washing as a great way to avoid getting sick. He says:
I wash my hands very often — and it’s not all because of swine flu. That’s probably the most effective precaution there is against all respiratory viruses, and the majority of gastrointestinal viruses and germs as well.
Later he says:
One study done in Pakistan has shown that hand washing can even save children’s lives. Someone should get a Nobel Prize for that!
In contrast, I believe that touching other people (and thereby picking up their germs on your hands) is part of a self-vaccination system whose goal is to protect us against the dangerous microbes nearby by exposing us to them in small amounts. Part of the system is an enjoyment of touching others and being touched. Another part is whatever causes us to constantly touch ourselves around the mouth. A third part is the tonsils, perfectly placed to pick up a tiny fraction of the germs around our mouths.
This theory of mine, which is supported by several lines of evidence, suggests that hand washing has a serious downside: It interferes with the self-vaccination system. Jefferson says nothing about any downside of hand washing. I’m not saying that Jefferson should have known of this theory of mine, of course not. (For one thing, the interview was before I thought of it.) My point is that — for reasons having nothing to do with money or career — he is too certain about what he knows. Maybe hand washing is only helpful when persons have weak immune systems or in places with large amounts of germs, such as hospitals. With strong immune systems in normal places, maybe it does more harm than good.
I became aware of the big gap in research after I improved my sleep and stopped getting colds. Before that, I had gotten the usual number of colds. No one had said that could happen — had said there was so much room for improvement in immune function. Anne Weiss became aware of the gap in research when she visited her doctor:
[More than 10] years ago I was seeing a family medicine doc who also taught epidemiology at [Famous Canadian University]. At one of my appointments I asked her how I could strengthen my immune system. She laughed in my face and told me that just was not possible.
Weiss says she was treated “as if I had asked about the existence of fairies or unicorns.” (She added that attitudes seem to be changing and one Canadian hospital now uses probiotics to prevent and treat C. difficile infection.)
Epidemiologists could easily study environmental control of immune function. They could ask questions like how many colds do you get in a typical year?, when you get a cold, how long does it usually take before the symptoms disappear? and during the last year, how many days did your longest cold last? As far as I know, they haven’t done so.