Evolutionary Medicine: Rethinking the Origins of Disease
Air Date: Week of March 17, 1995
Author Marc Lappé suggests an approach to healing which relies less on chemical drugs and more on the body's natural defenses. He's convinced that the human impact on the natural world is at the root of many new strains of infectious diseases which are filling our hospital, including AIDS and tuberculosis.
And just what can we do about this growing resistance of germs to antibiotics? There's a man in the San Francisco area who's been doing a lot of thinking about this, and he's come up with some answers. His name is Marc Lappé, and he's a research pathologist. His new book is called Evolutionary Medicine: Rethinking the Origins of Disease. Dr. Lappé says we have to remember evolution and that humans and bacteria evolve together. And that since bacteria can have a new generation every 20 minutes and adapt to environmental changes a lot faster than we humans can, we humans have to be smarter and work with the balance of nature instead of against it.
LAPPÉ: Not only do we have an intimate relationship with the bacteria that live in and on us, but we're in a very tight ecological relationship with virtually all the other bacteria in the world. But this image that we're facing an inimical horde of bacteria in part has led to the attempt not only to isolate ourselves from it, but with the mistaken belief that we can actually annihilate bacteria with antibiotics or other controls.
CURWOOD: In the evolutionary model of disease, what are the conditions that favor the appearance of new ailments?
LAPPÉ: We've essentially created our own nightmare by neglecting the value of vaccines, immunization, and natural controls and instead have relied entirely on this myth that a chemotherapeutic approach is an impenetrable barrier. We also share ecological niches wherever we live with the bacteria and viruses around us. When we disturb those niches, by taking enormous amounts of antibiotics, our bodies respond by allowing new organisms to overgrow our natural organisms. That's the origin of the epidemic of yeast infections in women, for instance. But on a grander scheme in the natural environment, for instance when we use antibiotics in feed lots, we cause an epidemic of resistance to the very antibiotics that we intend to use for treating disease later in humans.
CURWOOD: So by changing the earth's ecology, we increase the likelihood of us getting diseases; is that what you're saying?
LAPPÉ: At this moment we are controlling the evolution, not just by decimating species and annihilating swaths of rain forest, but by shifting the balance towards organisms that can thrive in the environment that we create.
CURWOOD: Can you tell us how evolution has led to diseases in some ancient societies that we might know about?
LAPPÉ: We think for instance that the malarial parasite emerged when we started to practice agriculture in central Africa, and we pushed into environments that were inhabited by lowland gorillas and chimps that carried a rather benign form of the plasmodium parasite. By creating new environments we also encourage the outgrowth of the anopheles mosquito and we thereby created the havoc that was then wreaked on populations in Africa by our own doings. But in many of those societies, most diseases were limited by the structure and nature of the social arrangements that people had. When we concentrated into towns, cities, and ultimately ghettos, we think we created the conditions for the explosive outburst of disease.
CURWOOD: How has the change in our social conditions pushed the evolution of disease?
LAPPÉ: One example would be the explosion of Lyme Disease, which now has been reported in every state in the Union. This is a condition that's brought about by moving human populations too close to natural populations that are the natural vectors or carriers of this disease. We've allowed the explosion of the deer population by eliminating predators and permitting the regrowth of forests. We put humans in these lovely suburban environments only to find that as they and their dogs walk thorough paths through the woods or adjacent to wild areas, they're picking up ticks that carry the beryllia organism that causes Lyme disease. This has been a dramatic change in the ecology, and it's been accompanied by the dramatic emergence of a new disease.
CURWOOD: So how do we fix this?
LAPPÉ: My idea is to use evolutionary strategies. We know what the intermediate hosts are. We know, as we did with rabies vaccine, that we can feed the wild population vaccines which will be active when ingested. These vaccines can be directed not against the beryllia organism but against the tick.
CURWOOD: With all the antibiotic resistance that's showing up in hospitals, medical professionals - you know, they're saying we're in trouble. But do you think they're really ready to change?
LAPPÉ: They're not ready to change; they have not learned the lesson that more is not better. That certain antibiotics should be absolutely kept in a locked safe, which is done in Sweden and Norway, where they're kept in reserve for emergencies. These are valuable commodities that are being squandered.
CURWOOD: What can individuals do?
LAPPÉ: First of all they can keep from annihilating their immune systems. Don't go out and sunbathe, for instance. Good nutrition, rest, are the key elements for maintaining the immune system. Be sure that you have an adequate intake of key vitamins that are essential for the function of the immune system, like vitamin C. Vitamin A is an immune stimulant; vitamin E is an important anti-oxidant. Stay off meth-amphetamines and things that run the system dry, and avoid medical products and devices like silicone-containing devices that screw up the immune system. Because chronic inflammation may activate the immune system in totally non-evolutionarily adaptive ways.
CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us.
LAPPÉ: You're very welcome.
CURWOOD: Mark Lappé is a research pathologist and author of Evolutionary Medicine: Rethinking the Origins of Disease.
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