Most of us probably have negative thoughts when we think about bacteria. We know that diseases are caused by bacteria, and we have been told since childhood that we need to wash our hands to avoid illness. Most of us know that from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries a fourth of all women giving birth in hospitals died of puerperal fever which was an infection spread by unhygienic nurses and doctors. What we may not know is that there was strong social opposition to hand washing during that time. In 1843 Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. campaigned for basic sanitation in hospitals, but was opposed by most of the medical establishment. Dr. Charles Meigs who was a famous American obstetrician responded that "Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen's hands are clean."

Bacteria are a vital part of the design of the human body. There are around 1,000 species of bacteria in the human body. There are more individual bacteria in one person's body than there are people in the United States. These bacteria do a bewildering number of things for us. They clean our skin, decompose our waste, help digest our food, and repel fungus, pollen, and insects. In addition they provide stimulus to our immune system to resist a variety of diseases. A recent study of 11,000 children showed that an overly-hygienic environment increases the risk of eczema and asthma.

The misconceptions about bacteria are numerous. Not only do most bacteria help us, but good and bad bacteria are amazingly resilient and efficient in all they do. There is no "five second rule" when it comes to dropping food on the ground, for example. Bacteria can be on the food the instant it touches the ground. A recent study at the University of Arizona showed that TV remotes are one of the most destructive carriers of disease in hospital rooms--worse than toilet handles. These remotes spread Staphylococcus which resists antibiotics and causes 90,000 deaths per year in hospitals.

There is still considerable debate about the origins of bad bacteria. Many bacteria that are destructive to humans have come to us from animals. It is appalling to see how many pets are allowed to have intimate contact with their owners transferring bacteria which may be helpful in a dog or cat, but can cause problems in a human. Some bacteria get altered (mutated) by chemicals and radiation in the environment. Much is still being learned about how bacteria become detrimental to our health.

Bacteria are an important tool of God. We could not live without them, and they have been well controlled in the past by the hygienic rules that God has given. The ancient Israelites had washings and practiced quarantine that reduced the problems of spreading diseases and infections. By contrast, King Henry IV of England caused controversy by requiring his knights to bathe at least once in their lifetime. The lifestyle of the Israelites involved living in the open in isolated open air conditions. We have built huge cities and placed ourselves in very dense populations so that the problems of infection and the spreading of disease have become more critical. A seventh grader in Florida recently made the news by proving that there were more bacteria in the ice machines in fast food restaurants than in toilet bowl water. We have also complicated our situation by misinformation and the injudicious use of chemicals and radiation. A simple example is that antibacterial soap is no more effective at preventing infection than regular soap, and the active ingredient (triclosan) has a negative effect on hormones.

When we are sick we tend to allow ourselves to question the wisdom of bacteria and agents that can make us ill, but we underestimate the purpose and value of bacteria in our lives, and need to appreciate them as a part of the intelligence that permeates every aspect of the world in which we live.

Source: Discover magazine, September 2007, page 80.

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