Petrozavodsk is a rather poor Russian city of 270,000 on the shores of Lake Onega and the capital of the Republic of Karelia. It is on the border of Finland. The Finnish population on the other side of the border is 7 times richer than the Russian population. However, the genetic makeup, climate, geography is pretty much the same.
Yet there is one major difference.
64 out of every 100,000 Finnish kids are afflicted with Type I Diabetes. The rate was a fourth of this in 1950s. In Petrozavodsk today, it is a Sixth of it. Mikael Knip, a Finnish physician and University of Helsinki researcher has been studying the two populations and their different health parameters.
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In 1980s, Erika von Mutius, another researcher was also studying the differences between East and West Germany populations and their health. Her study brought out some very extraordinary results:
On November 9, 1989, an unusual opportunity came along: The Berlin Wall fell. For the first time since the 1940s, West Germans could conduct research in the East. Von Mutius, of Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich, seized the opportunity, expanding her study to include Leipzig, a city of 520,000 deep in East Germany.
The countryside around Leipzig was home to polluting chemical plants and was pocked with open-pit coal mines; many residents heated their apartments with coal-burning ovens. It was a perfect experiment: Two groups of children with similar genetic backgrounds, divided by the Iron Curtain into dramatically different environments. If air pollution caused asthma, Leipzig’s kids should be off the charts.
Working with local doctors, von Mutius studied hundreds of East German schoolchildren. “The results were a complete surprise,” von Mutius says. “In fact, at first we thought we should re-enter the data.” Young Leipzigers had slightly lower rates of asthma than their Bavarian counterparts—and dramatically less hay fever, a pollen allergy.
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Autoimmune Diseases and Development
These studies are bringing out another dimension to the prevalence of Auto-Immune diseases and the curse of Development. What these researchers are saying is something which may seem totally crazy when you looked at it on surface.
It was the Germ-Laden Dirt – that was the major difference between the health situations of the two populations – one poverty striken and other wealthy.
But it was germ-laden dirt that seemed to matter, not air pollution. The children of full-time farmers in rural Switzerland and Bavaria, for example, had far fewer allergies than their non-farming peers. And a study following more than 1,000 babies in Arizona showed that, unless parents also had asthma, living in houses with dogs reduced the chances of wheezing and allergies later in life. Researchers proposed that the more microbial agents that children are exposed to early in life, the less likely they are to develop allergies and autoimmune diseases later on. Studies also showed that baby mice kept in sterile environments were more likely to face autoimmune disease, seeming to back what came to be called the “hygiene hypothesis.”
What the scientists are saying is that the “Dirt and germs” exposure makes the difference in the first few years itself. It is then that the “Army” of body’s immunity system really gets ready and trained.
At birth, our immune cells make up an aggressive army with no sense of who its enemies are. But the more bad guys the immune system is exposed to during life’s early years, the more discerning it gets. “The immune system is programmed within the first two years of life,” says Knip. “With less early infection, the immune system has too little to do, so it starts looking for other targets.”
Studies are finding that allergies are significantly lesser in poorer societies than in the wealthier. And it is no longer possible to blame it on “Genes” or “Race”; because people from all races and backgrounds in the developed world are falling prey to allergies.
In places where living conditions resemble this “pre-hygiene” past—rural parts of Africa, South America and Asia—the disorders remain uncommon. It can be tempting to dismiss the differences as genetic. But disease rates in the industrialized world have risen too fast, up to 3 or 4 percent a year in recent decades, to be explained by evolutionary changes in DNA. “You can see quite clearly in a pre-hygiene situation you don’t see allergic disease,” says Thomas Platts-Mills, an allergy specialist at the University of Virginia. “Move to a hygiene society, and it does not matter your race or ethnicity—allergy rises.”
Are Developed Societies too clean for their own good?
Is the developed lifestyle INVENTING diseases? Diseases that can be avoided if one lived in and with nature? It certainly seems so.
Sanitized life makes one feel good for a time, but it is does have the impact of dumbing down the body. I remember during my childhood – school time – in Delhi, I would deliberately take cold water bath even in winters. I would very rarely catch those bad colds. On the other hand, my siblings would catch really bad colds over the winters.
Ever since I have been in the US, I have chosen never to get the Flu shots, to make sure my body does not “forget” to fight its own devils. I do get Flu once in a while, but its not worse than what others have despite the Flu shots.
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