At UC Berkeley several years ago, I learned about an introductory epidemiology class. I knew the professor. I phoned him. “Are you going to discuss factors that make the immune system work better or worse?” I asked. “No,” he said. I wasn’t surprised. In my experience, epidemiologists completely ignore this question. As if the immune system had never been discovered. It sounds absurd, but there it is.
Epidemiologists aren’t the only ones. All well-publicized attempts to “battle” or “combat” or “defeat” or “beat” viruses, such as cold or flu viruses, neglect this possibility, in my experience. Whole books on the subject do not mention the immune system. The latest example of the blindness is an article by Michael Specter at the New Yorker website about fear caused by discovery of how to make a bird flu virus spread more easily. Maybe the knowledge could be used by terrorists. Specter writes as if the immune system doesn’t exist. He doesn’t mention it and ignores the possibility of defending against new viruses by improving immune function. For example, he writes:
Instead of focussing so heavily on human terrorists, we ought to take this opportunity to defeat a natural pathogen—one we can now recognize and manipulate with all the sophistication of molecular biology.
There are three conditions necessary for a flu outbreak to become a deadly pandemic, like the one in in 1918 that killed between fifty and a hundred million people. Those conditions rarely converge. First, a new virus—one that has never before infected humans and to which nobody would have protective antibodies—must emerge from the animal reservoirs where they originate. That virus has to make people sick. (The vast majority do not.) Finally, it must be able to spread rapidly and efficiently—through a cough, a handshake, or a kiss.
He writes as if whether a virus makes people sick and spreads rapidly depends solely on the virus. This is false: How well your immune system is working makes a big difference. If a virus is fought off quickly, you won’t notice — you won’t “get sick”. Because you are infected more briefly, you will spread it less. (Possibly much much less. If a virus doubles in number in 4 hours, then two fewer days of infection equals a huge reduction in the number of virus particles inside you while you are contagious.)
In this blindness, I’m sure Specter reflects the blindness of the scientists he talks to. They simply talk and think about what they do, which is molecular biology.
I became aware of the power of improving the immune system when I improved my sleep and stopped getting colds. More recently, I have become sure that eating fermented foods improves immune function. I suspect that a lot of traditional medicine, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, is effective because it improves immune function. (For example, the use of bee venom to treat arthritis.) Everyone knows at an answer-test-question level that the immune system exists. A lot has been learned about how it works. But the vast majority of doctors and other health experts (and journalists) ignore this knowledge in practice.