Infectious Diseases Are Back (And They Aren't Going To Go Away Again)

Infectious diseases are once again a major threat to our health. Some have been created by genetic engineers (either messing around looking for new superbugs for the military to use) and some have developed as a result of the irresponsible prescribing of antibiotics. Now that they are back infectious diseases aren't going to go away. As antibiotics become less and less effective, we must take serious steps to protect ourselves.

Your body's immune system helps to protect you against infection. If your immune system - your inbuilt defence system - is in tip top condition then you will be far less vulnerable to these marauding viruses or bacteria.

What you choose to eat can have a big effect on the strength and effectiveness of your immune system. You can strengthen your immune system - and reduce your susceptibility to infections (and cancer) by changing your diet.

Here is my general advice:

1. You must do everything you can to keep your body's immune system in tip top condition. It is vital to eat regular supplies of foods which contain anti-oxidants. Recommended foods include: apples, asparagus, baked beans, broccoli, brown rice, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, chick peas, corn, grapefruit, lentils, oats, oranges, peas, pineapples, potatoes, soya beans, spinach, strawberries. I also recommend taking sunflower and pumpkin seeds daily.

2. Unless your diet naturally contains garlic then I recommend that you take a garlic supplement every day.

3. If you eat meat it is important that you give it up - particularly if you have an infection which is being treated with antibiotics. The spread of a number of killer infections has been traced to meat shipments. The basic cause is simple: farmers routinely feed antibiotics to their animals to keep them healthy. Animals which are fed with antibiotics inevitably acquire antibiotic resistant organisms. Repeated problems caused by meat infected with antibiotic resistant E Coli are a direct result of this still unregulated and uncontrolled farming practice. Many of the people who fall ill after eating infected meat have been taking antibiotics - for throat or ear infections for example. The antibiotic prescribed for the throat or ear infection clears the body of many of its natural infections, allowing the antibiotic resistant superbug to take over a virtually competitor free body.

4. Stress will damage your immune system and impair your body's ability to fight infection. It is, therefore, important that you reduce your exposure to unnecessary stress. Make a list of all the factors which add stress to your life and then avoid those stresses which can be avoided.

5. Try to avoid buildings which have closed circuit air-conditioning systems. When air is constantly recirculated your chances of acquiring an infection are dramatically increased. If one person sneezes or coughs then the chances are high that everyone in the building will be exposed to the bug.

6. You should try to keep away from hospitals, doctors' clinics and other places where sick people congregate - and where antibiotic resistant bugs are likely to be much in control. I used to favour open plan wards (as designed by Florence Nightingale) since patients in such wards can be kept constantly under supervision by nurses. The explosion in the incidence of antibiotic resistant bugs means that single rooms are now preferable for any patient requiring hospital treatment.

7. Whenever possible you should avoid methods of public transport which re-circulate used air. Modern trains tend to have no opening windows - with the result that if one person sneezes in a carriage the chances are that everyone else will be exposed to (and possibly catch) their disease.

8. If you eat eggs, you should never buy (or eat) eggs with cracked shells. It is much easier for an infection to enter an egg with a cracked shell. Eggs laid by genuinely free range chickens are likely to be healthier than eggs laid by hens kept in battery cages.

9. Make sure that your fridge is kept cold enough. The temperature inside your fridge should be below 3 degrees Centigrade.

10. Make sure that you wash your hands thoroughly before preparing food. Staphylococcus, for example, can be transmitted hand to hand.

11. Never re-freeze food which has been previously frozen and then thawed. Thawing increases the number of bacteria and re-freezing food increases the chances of infection.

12. If you eat meat make sure that it is completely thawed before you start to cook it. If you do not do this then the chances are that the middle of the meat will still be frozen when you start to cook it - and will not be properly cooked when the rest of the meat is ready. Meat which is raw will probably be full of bugs.

13. Keep foods apart from one another in your fridge in order to reduce the risk of cross contamination. Put meat (a high risk source of infection) at the bottom of the fridge and keep it away from other foods.

14. Don't ever buy tins which are rusty, bulging or badly damaged.

15. Always check the sell-by-date before buying food. Don't be tempted to buy (or use) food which has passed its sell-by-date.

16. If your doctor wants to prescribe an antibiotic ask him if he thinks it is really essential - or if he is just giving you the prescription because he thinks you want an antibiotic. Don't take these drugs unless you really need them.

17. Don't eat foods which contain antibiotics. If you eat meat and fish make sure you avoid factory farmed produce. Meat and fish from organic farms should not contain antibiotics. Avoid dairy produce where alternatives exist (for example, use soya spread instead of butter).

18. Eat live yoghurt - which contains the `friendly' lactobacillus acidophilus. (Soya yoghurt also contains it).

19. Have you ever wondered whether the modern obsession with hygiene could have possibly made us more susceptible to illness? Poor living conditions are known to be a significant factor in the development of many diseases (for example tuberculosis) but could too much of a good thing be a bad thing? There is growing evidence to show that it could. Children who live in an unhealthily artificial (and clean) environment, and who have very little contact with infective organisms, may grow up without having acquired the immunity which might help protect them from some infections later in life. And children who `miss' common childhood illnesses (such as the big four: measles, rubella, mumps and chickenpox) may suffer far more seriously if they get those infections when they are adults. But too much cleanliness may not only result in an increased susceptibility to infection. Some immunologists now believe that the dramatic increase in allergy problems such as asthma, eczema and hayfever in recent years may be due to excessive hygiene. Modern babies have very little contact with mycobacteria (which live in soil and streams) and this could result in their immune systems becoming too quick to develop allergy responses (as well as too slow to kill bacteria and viruses). It's too early to offer definitive advice on this just yet. But my instinct tells me that children just might grow up stronger, healthier and less likely to develop allergies if they spent more time playing in the garden and less time living in a sterile antiseptic-soaked environment. If I'm right, doctors and drug companies will probably soon find a way of cashing in on this. What odds against the next generation of doctors prescribing `mud pie dabbling' three times a week? The mud pies will, of course, come courtesy of the pharmaceutical industry. They will be expensively pre-packed and guaranteed to contain just the right number of mycobacteria. Meanwhile, a tad more soil, a dab more mud and a spray or two less of antiseptic may be a wise move.

20. Don't take drugs (either prescribed or bought over the pharmacy counter) unless you really need them. Always investigate other ways to deal with health problems.

Copyright Vernon Coleman 2004

You can find out more about how to stay healthy - and reduce your chances of catching an infectious disease or developing cancer -from Vernon Coleman's book `Superbody', available through all good bookshops or from the shop on this site.