Nursing Book Club

Riddled With Life: The Parasites That Make Us Who We Are

An evolutionary biologist with a wacky sense of humor discusses the evolution of disease and why we need certain organisms.

By Marlene Zuk; Harcourt Inc, 2004
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Reviewed By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN

Book ReviewMarlene Zuk has a T-shirt that across the front reads “If you knew sushi like I know sushi…” On the back? Surprise! It’s a graphic of the life cycle of a worm, the Anisakis, which on some occasions and under some circumstances ends up in people. Not such a pleasant thought, but it is a wonderfully silly example of the close connection between humans and the parasitic world around us. Our planet is teeming with tiny and not-so-tiny eggs, worms, bacteria, viruses — all juggling for survival and the chance to reproduce.

Nurses understand the nature of microbes; we’ve learned the vigilance and care that are required to avoid transmission of disease. We know, for instance, how easily a RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) outbreak can close a neonatal ICU or how the Norwalk virus wreaks havoc on a cruise ship. But Zuk, an evolutionary biologist with a wacky sense of humor, points out, in case after case, how much we need some organisms. Certain microbes make us what we are.

For instance, for some years now researchers have noted that asthma is on the increase in highly industrialized countries but is less common or almost nonexistent in the underdeveloped world. How come? Could it be our notions of cleanliness are actually working against us? Nothing is proven yet; it's just a thought, so to speak. But research continues. Just maybe our immune system needs a certain amount of stress (dirt and germs) to develop its ability to fight.

Another hypothesis that scientists are exploring is how a disease “evolves.” Not all diseases become less virulent over time, but some do. What we know as smallpox was called “small,” to distinguish it from the “great pox,” syphilis. Descriptions of the STD during the middle ages indicate a physically repulsive affliction, involving, among other signs, widespread pustules that reeked. Now syphilis remains, if untreated, a serious affliction. But no one associates it with grotesque bodily disfigurement. It has changed. Could the same transition occur with AIDS?

What about emerging diseases? As it happens, most people do not die of AIDS, or Ebola or avian flu. Most of us will die of cancer, heart disease or something like Alzheimer’s. We don’t usually think of any of these being caused by infectious agents. And yet, consider the common stomach ulcer. For decades everyone assumed that stress and diet were the major factors contributing to that wretched condition. Now, thanks to Barry Marshall and J.R. Warren, we know that Heliobacter pylori causes the lesion. No more milk and baby food diet for months on end. A course of antibiotics and it's over. Still, be careful. You know what can happen if the normal flora of the gut are eliminated.
Don’t forget: Nature’s bugs play by their own rules!

Purchase Riddled With Life from Amazon

Written By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, PHN, BSN, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. She has 30 years of nursing experience.

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