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This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 75 – April 2002
A concise history of the theories of aetiology would show that among the myriad of ideas put forward to explain the cause of disease, four stand out clearly. They have in common the premise that disease is an inimical entity that must be fought, driven out, or cured.
In the beginning was the evil spirit theory: malevolent forces found their way into people’s bodies and made them sick. In the days when this belief was prevalent, one of the logical cures consisted of making holes in the diseased body in order to create an exit through which the malign spirit could be expelled. I read somewhere that this perforative but not perficient treatment gave rise to acupuncture, a more subtle form of curing through puncturing.
Then, and much later, people like Pasteur and Koch substituted microbes or germs for the evil spirit as a universal cause of disease.
The germ theory of disease was born and microbiologists were busy trying to fit every disease with a specific bug.
Tons of antibiotics later came the virus (and retro-virus) theory. Almost suddenly, microbes took a back seat. The original meaning of the disused word ‘virus’ is poison. Thanks to the electron microscope, the word got a new lease of life, and a new meaning in tune with modern medicine and its obsession with everything microscopic. Viruses became all the rage. From that time, nobody had a common cold anymore; they had the flu instead, a viral affliction. Although no one know for sure what exactly is a virus (is it a living or non-living structure?), the men in white coats adopted it with open arms as a handy scapegoat that could be blamed for all sorts of symptoms, old and new.
Today, we are witnessing the rise of yet a new theory or fad: the gene theory of disease. In a way, it’s not a great departure from the virus theory since viruses are “…like mobile genes”, to use the words of Dr Lewis Thomas. The gene theory proves to be even more all embracing than either the germ or the virus. No month passes without an announcement in the media of a hypothetical genetic cause of all sorts of psychological and somatic troubles. Even backache has been added to the long list of symptoms possibly caused by ‘bad’ genes (see my column in the September 1999 issue of Positive Health).
All these hypotheses, apart from the first one which is nearly extinct, are competing with one another to boss the medical show. Take the germ theory for example: like the real germ, it dies hard! There is always some doctor or microbiologist ready to rescue the tottering germ theory. Soon after some scientists tried to persuade us that backache is all in our genes, some specialists in Birmingham want us to believe that half of all cases of sciatica could simply be caused by a bacterium. Meet Proprionibacterium acnes, a bug that usually takes up residence on the surface of the skin and is believed to be linked to acne. But not content to spoil our looks, it also preys on our backs. From the 180 patients suffering from severe sciatica tested by the specialist in Birmingham, 46 per cent showed bacterial infection in their disc tissue, with Proprionibacterium acnes the most frequently occurring bug. Soon you might be told that sciatica is contagious!
According to this chance discovery, it appears that I was not very clued up when I compared the herniated disc to an over-ripe camembert (see the June 2001 issue of Positive Health): I should have likened it to a mega-pimple! Perhaps we are at the beginning of a new treatment for sciatica where surgeons, instead of cutting out the offending disc with the knife, will squeeze it with their bare hands as if it was a common spot. But this is without taking into account antibiotics – the wonder drug of the germ era. If disease is something to wage war upon, if germs are to be destroyed, then antibiotics are the right choice by virtue of their germicidal power. But germs, on the whole, are friendly and useful characters. For any one germ that may prove harmful, there are about 1,000 helpful ones. In What is Life, Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan write: “One legitimate answer to the question ‘What is life?’ is ‘bacteria’.” To know that antibiotic means ‘against life’ is not reassuring. Antibiotics produce many side effects (collateral damage would be a better description), some of which can be fatal. The wonder drug has had its day and has become the blunder drug.
To find bacteria in herniated disc tissues and to infer that the former is the cause of sciatica would be leapfrogging to a conclusion.
There are a multitude of maggots in the decaying body of a dead sheep, yet nobody will deduce from this observation that the maggots are the cause of the death of the sheep. Whatever the role germs play in disease, it’s certainly not the primary one. They are more a result than a cause. The terrain (inner environment) dear to Claude Bernard, is all. Germs are pleomorphic or polymorphous, i.e., they can exhibit different forms according to the media upon which they grow. And when they alter their shape they also change function: from harmless they become ‘sick’ and pathogenic, which is another proof of my contention that shape conditions function. Even the infamous rod-shaped anthrax bacilli can change into round cocci, which do not ’cause’ anthrax but a totally different disease. When a disc is herniated there are irritation, inflammation and chemically or physically damaged cells, a good environment for bacteria, the great ‘recyclers’ and ‘scavengers’ within our organism. It is the overall health of the patient with sciatica that decides if these bacteria become troublesome or not.
Health, not antibiotics, is the best defence against potentially harmful bacteria. Keep your blood and tissues clean so that bugs won’t find any grub to grab in your body.
1. Thomas Lewis. The Wonderful Mistake. Oxford University Press. 1988.
2. Margulis Lynn and Sagan Dorion. What is Life? Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London. 1995.
3. Bernard Claude, 1813-1878. French physiologist, a pioneer of experimental medicine.
4. Discovery made by Mme Victor Henry at the Pasteur Institute in 1914.