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THE NEW GERM THEORY OF DISEASE: STAYING HOME

If sufficient information about the evolution of harmfulness is known and acted on, this approach could eventually lead to pathogens so mild we hardly notice the disease they cause. Imagine the effect of a simple change in our health ethic. What if people were encouraged to stay home if they or a family member were sick?In today’s workplace, someone who does not come in because of illness may be seen as being less dedicated, even though a sick worker may spread illness to the other employees. The advertising of products for symptomatic relief must exacerbate the problem, encouraging us, as they do, to spread our nasty respiratory tract infections. Cold and sore throat remedies are sold with promises to help you make it through your daily routine in spite of having a bad cold or sore throat. We are shown some uninformed victim in an unattractive state, all stuffed up and achy. Then we see the same person out and about after a dose of the peddled product, in the workplace, shopping, or taking care of neighborhood kids. That person, of course, is still infectious and is comfortably spreading misery throughout the community. The advertisements do not actually say, “Feel better fast so that you can spread disease within your community,” but that is certainly their short-range effect. Their long-range effect is just as disturbing. The advertisements encourage the spread of nasty variants, whereas from an evolutionary point of view we need to do just the opposite. If people stayed home when they felt the least bit sick, the pathogens that would be left to circulate in the community would be those that rarely, if ever, made a person feel the least bit sick.The necessary social change should not be too hard. It is in our nature to take it easy when we feel sick, and it is probably even beneficial financially to employers, though not to the companies pushing the get-out-of-bed-and-spread option. We have done this sort of thing before with smoking and drinking. We have countered the irresponsible advertising with responsible messages. Within a decade or two, public attitudes toward drunk driving and smoking changed from permissiveness to social ostracism. Countless lives have been saved. Changing attitudes toward coming to work sick may be easier because we have an inherent revulsion to infectious disease. You don’t have to be taught to be disgusted when someone sneezes or coughs in your face. It should be relatively easy to get across the idea that a sneeze from a person in the chair next to us is almost as dangerous as a sneeze in the face; either may force us into days of bedridden misery. Sometimes it can even mean death, as is the case for elderly people infected with influenza. I doubt that most people would object too strenuously to staying home if they were not going to be criticized for doing it, especially if they would face the opposite: ostracism for going to work sick.From the government and health experts there is silence, perhaps because the scope of the problem is not recognized. This view of the future might have been a pipe dream ten years ago, but today people can often do their work at home and send it in over the Internet. As is the case with drunk driving and smoking, even partial compliance should provide a benefit. The more compliance, the greater the benefit. As is the case with waterborne, vector-borne, and attendant-borne transmission, solving the harmfulness problem should simultaneously ameliorate the problems of antibiotic resistance. Recruit your bosses. If they are unresponsive, punctuate your argument with a well-placed sneeze.*61\225\2*

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