How obsession with cleanliness could be making us ill

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THE use of antibacterial cleaners in the home could be making people more vulnerable to the potentially deadly E.coli O157 food poisoning bug, a health expert has claimed.

Dr Prysor Williams from Bangor University, a lecturer in environmental management and an expert on human pathogens, believes people’s obsession with cleanliness reduces contact with the bacteria, thereby weakening our immune systems and leaving us less able to resist infection.

Although he admits there is no solid evidence to support his theory yet, he plans to air his views in a lecture at Aberystwyth University on Wednesday.

Dr Williams said his supposition comes from the knowledge that workers frequently exposed to the E.coli O157 bug appear to have a greater immunity to infection.

“Certainly farmers and abattoir workers who come into contact with these cattle and sheep, which carry the bug quite normally in their systems, experience fewer cases of E.coli O157. It does happen but it’s relatively rare and we would certainly expect to hear more of it,” Dr Williams told the Western Mail.

“The theory is that generally, people aren’t exposed to E.coli O157 very often, especially those of urban background.

“With regards to other bacteria and pathogens, there’s a theory that our use of cleaning products and disinfectant products has weakened out immune systems against some pathogens. But, the firm evidence is not there.

“What has been proven though is that our use of antibiotics helps generate a resistant type of bacteria. The same is probably true with regards to the vigorous cleaning we do at home and there is some good basis to that theory.”

Dr Williams will also be discussing attitudes towards and knowledge of E.coli O157, which struck down more than 150 people – mostly children – in South Wales in 2005, and resulted in the death of five-year-old Mason Jones.

The source of the infection was traced back to cross contamination between raw and cooked meat at a butchers which supplied schools across Bridgend and the Valleys.

Dr Williams said although E.coli has been around for millions of years, the O157 strain is relatively new, not having been detected until 1977.

He said this has led to a considerable gap in knowledge about infection and a lack of treatments for those who become ill.

“With regards to treatment, there’s a huge lack of suitable drugs and administering antibiotics to affected persons has been known to make it worse.

Dr Williams said having questioned farmers, abattoir workers and butchers as part of a study he is doing into E.coli O157, he found the lack of knowledge results in “buck-passing” between those who are responsible for limiting the bugs’ progress into the food chain.

“There are lots of measures in place to prevent infection, but the question is, are those measures being adhered to?”

However, Dr Williams said even if the regulations were adhered to, the bacteria could not be wiped out, leaving our immune systems as our best protection.

“I’m not telling people their children should eat platefuls of soil to build immunity and even if anti-bacterial cleaners are used in the home, children will still pick up bugs out of doors and when they are stroking pets etc. No-one will ever be able to raise their children in a sterile environment.

“Common sense needs to be used. It’s good to be hygienic and clean, certainly with regards to food preparation, but a bit of dirt now and again won’t hurt anybody.”

The lecture, known as the Walter Idris Jones Lecture, will take place in room A14 in the Hugh Owen Building on the Penglais Campus, Aberystwyth University, at 7pm on Wednesday. The lecture will be given in Welsh and simultaneous English translation will be provided



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