Bacterium: A foe or a friend?

(Bacteria, antibiotics, and probiotics)

Dr.Vivek Nalgirkar

3/10/20222 min read

“This water purifier (RO/UV?!) makes your drinking water completely germ-free”, “This soap kills 99% germs on your skin”, “This toothpaste……”, and so on. Amazing proportion of the daily TV ads are claiming to wipe out or fight the bacteria in some or the other part of the body; and may be, rightly so. I mean, some of them really make sense. For instance, the mosquito repellant products disallow the harmful microbes gain entry into our systems via mosquito bites. 

Fine. Logical. Acceptable. 

What irks me, though, is that in majority of these commercials, the central characters are children. In a way, children are the targeted age group for those products; and, herein lies the problem. 

It’s all very well to say that adults should not get exposed to any harmful bacteria, lest they will fall ill, resulting in loss of man-hours, revenue, etc. Adults who have debilitating ailments, those on medications, or with lower levels of immunity, may get their health issues further complicated by such exposures. But why children should be kept completely bacteria-free? It’s the maternal emotion that is played up in these ads; mom warning her kid about the ‘germs’. “Drink only mineral/purified water”; “don’t play in mud”..etc. (Drinking water should be safe and potable; it needn’t be mineral water.) 

If a child suffers from fever from any reason, the mom would instantly reach out for paracetamol. Every parent is very sensitive when it comes to his/her own child. However, I believe, the parents are being short-sighted here. 

Children develop immunity during first few years of life. The thymus gland undergoes involution by 10-12 years’ age. During the early childhood, and before the thymus gland disappears, a child should get exposed to as many antigens as possible. It will build the immunity stronger. Fever, in children, is actually an indication that the immune mechanisms are fighting back. (Of course, the fever should be controlled so as not to have its effects on the developing nervous system.)

There is something called ‘innate immunity’ which is gifted to most of us from the beginning. We also ‘acquire’ our immunity through exposure to various antigenic or foreign materials (including bacteria). Hence, for a long-term healthy life, it is in the interest of a child to get exposed to microbes and antigens. 

At least some strains of bacteria, in that sense, can be called friends, as has been clearly established by now. There are ‘friendly’ bacteria on the skin, there is flora in the gut, and so on. These bacteria actually help us ward off the invading ‘unfriendly’ pathogens. This realization is coming only now. Last century was the ‘century of antibiotics. The harm done by the antibiotics was understood slowly. It takes a few years to develop the benevolent gut microflora, but a few short courses of antibiotics may disrupt the healthy gut environment almost permanently. Hence, came the idea of adding ‘lactobacillus’ strains to the antibiotic dosages. And now is the era of ‘probiotics’ being aggressively promoted – “Bacteria achche hai…!!” (“Bacteria are good”). 

In summary, there is no wisdom in putting the focus on making a child absolutely ‘germ-free’. Use the antibiotics sparingly; and remember, some amount of exposure to microbes is not all that bad after all….

- Dr. Vivek Nalgirkar