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The Bugs of Summer

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Article printed in the September 10-11, 2005 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Wellness, Medical Matters
Dr Peter W Kujtan portrait

It is difficult to believe that the new school year is here, but in the average family doctor's office it is heralded by two common occurrences. The first is the appearance of those worrisome health department forms that inform you of impending school suspension unless you drop everything and run to get immunized. The second is a new wave of sniffle noses and sore throats. Sure as pucks are to hockey is the burp in community respiratory infections rates that occur around Labor Day. It catches parents and senior students by surprise and off-guard. The cause is probably linked to our modern lifestyle. Mississauga has really become the gateway to Canada for both people and microbes.

We have the esteemed privilege of demonstrating the substance of our esteemed society to all those arriving through the Portals of Pearson. An astounding 75,000 passengers travel through this facility per day. I see it as 75,000 unwilling yet potential carriers of the latest strain of whatever from every part of the globe. All these classmates and friends returning from all points then congregate in groups of 20, or maybe 30? exchanging summer stories and infesting each other with the newest microbe.

It is a common occurrence in our office to see ill patients who were perfectly "well" when they began the long journey home. I have grown to view "airplane air" with suspicion. Theoretically, we Mississaugans and our immune systems get first crack at sampling the latest easily transmitted infection from the farthest reaches of the globe on a daily basis. I am uncertain whether I should reassure people that this is beneficial or disastrous. No one truly knows. On the one hand, there has never really been a time in man's existence on this planet that would expose him to such a wide variety of infectious agents from afar so rapidly. Traditionally, things like influenza and the plague traveled very slowly between communities. Bodies had time to adjust and respond.

The most common bugs that take this route are cold viruses. They are minor illnesses, so that we do not employ the means or methods to characterize and quantify them. We simply get the fever, chills, sniffles, sore throat or cough, recover and go on. A special case in point is the West Nile Virus. When it was first detected in North America several years back, some people were predicting widespread catastrophe. The information about how infectious and dangerous it is originates from third world data. Even those numbers suggest that most of us will survive unaffected by this new tenant in our microbial supermarket. At this juncture, no one can say for sure. The early predictions of elevated death rates have failed to materialize. One reason may be that we are not only a cosmopolitan society, but tend to be healthier and better nourished than the third world countries where data originated. Notice that I didn't mention fitter! We really lack the infrastructure to track these diseases. Only the most severe form attracts clinical suspicion.

Some agencies are attempting their best to track the virus in its natural host, but there is not one study that I could find that is looking to see how infectious it really is, but measuring acquired immunity rates. We are more literate, armed with more arsenals of chemicals for protection and destruction, and that make us different. It is possible that many of us harbor immunity already as the infection travels through our population lightly. If frontline physicians were to try to convince every parent or patient with a sniffle that they should spend an hour or two sitting in yet another uncomfortable chair grasping a tiny meat-counter number to give a blood sample simply for the sake of statistics, our overwhelmed resources might become, well, overwhelmed. We only count the fires, because there is no good method available to count the smoke.

The take home message in all of this should be the testimony to our own immune system. It is an amazing form of protection that comes through for us time and time again. Feed it properly, exercise it regularly, and refrain from the temptation of polluting it with "natural" drugs and cures, and it will go on doing its job of protecting us from invasion. Time to start skating laps and stocking up on muscle balm and air freshener!

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