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The germ theory of disease

The germ theory of disease, which states that illness is caused by bacteria, viruses and other micro-organisms, is widely attributed to Louis Pasteur, a French chemist and biologist who lived from 1822 to 1895.

Pasteur is considered so great that UNESCO (United Nations Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organisation) declared 1995, a hundred years after his death, as The Year of Pasteur.

His influence is no doubt tremendous. Pasteur's germ theory of disease is directly responsible for many of the practices that have become universal today, including vaccination, pasteurisation and the use of antibiotics and similar drugs.

Yet critics have painted a rather dark picture of him, describing him as a plagarist (who took the ideas of other scientists and claimed credit for himself), a liar and a fraud.

These critics include Gerald Geison, a a professor of medical history at Princeton University, who in 1995 published the book, The Private Science of Louis Pasteur. There is also a 1942 book by R Pearson titled Pasteur: Plagarist, Imposter and a 1923 book by Ethel Douglas titled Bechamp or Pastor.

The purpose of article is not to evaluate Louis Pasteur as a person, however, but to take a closer look at his germ theory of disease and the impact of that theory.

On the one hand, the germ theory of disease does seem to have plenty of merit. People do fall sick when they eat dirty food or drink dirty water contaminated with harmful bacteria. And people do fall ill when they come into contact with others who are sick - whether with the flu, or other diseases like Hepatitis.

History of the germ theory of disease

Although the germ theory of disease is widely attributed to Lous Pasteur, the idea that diseases are caused - and spread - by tiny, unseen "creatures" actually has a much longer history. It was mentioned in ancient Hindu texts thousands of years ago and, over the centuries, various writers had proposed similar ideas.

Significantly, Florence Nightingale wrote a criticism of this theory in 1860, which was 17 years before Pasteur adopted the germ theory of disease as if he first came up with it.

One of the key concepts in this theory is that the germ is fixed. For example, there is an anthrax germ, a cholera germ, a tuberculosis germ and so on. And this germ does not change. Nightingale challenged this idea when she wrote:

Diseases are not individuals arranged in classes, like cats and dogs, but conditions, growing out of one another... like a dirty and a clean condition, and just as much under our control...

I was brought up to believe that smallpox, for instance, was a thing of which there was once a first specimen in the world, which went on propagating itself, in a perpetual chain of descent, just as there was a first dog, (or a first pair of dogs) and that smallpox would not begin itself, any more than a new dog would begin without there having been a parent dog.

Since then I have seen with my own eyes and smelled with my own nose smallpox growing up in first specimens, either in closed rooms or in overcrowded wards, where it could not by any possibility have been ‘caught’, but must have begun. I have seen diseases begin, grow up, and turn into one another.

Now, dogs do not turn into cats. I have seen, for instance, with a little overcrowding, continued fever grow up; and with a little more, typhoid fever; and with a little more, typhus, and all in the same ward or hut...

The specific disease doctrine is the grand refuge of weak, uncultured, unstable minds, such as now rule in the medical profession. There are no specific diseases; there are specific disease conditions.

Pasteur is said to have de-bunked this idea, widely accepted at the time, that diseases can arise spontaneously. He "proved" the germ theory of disease by injecting the blood of an infected animal into a healthy animal, after which the healthy animal fell ill.

But, as one of Pasteur's critics, Claude Bernard, pointed out, this "proof" had a major fault. When Pasteur injected the blood, he not only passed on the germ. He also passed on the "toxic blood" (of a sick animal). Could this toxic blood, rather than the germ, be the true cause of disease?

Limitations of the germ theory

Bernard is right. The pathogen is nothing. The terrain is everything.

- Louis Pasteur

The above quote is claimed to have been said by Louis Pasteur on his deathbed, acknowledging that it is not bacteria that cause disease, but the body environment that allows bacteria to thrive.

There is no proof that Pasteur actually said this, but this quote is often used by those who argue that bacteria and viruses are not the true cause of disease. Rather, they are the result of a dieseased condition.

The "terrain" in this quote is said to refer to the body environment that allows bacteria and viruses to flourish.

In particular, Claude Bernard, who is referred to in the quote, pointed out that bacteria and viruses thrive only in an acidic condition and that keeping the body alkaline is key to preventing infectious diseases.

As we saw in the article, What causes the flu, the germ theory of disease fails to explain a few important observations:
  • Why is it that not everyone who is exposed to a bacteria or virus falls ill? For example, medical doctors in general pactice typically come into close contact with scores of flu sufferers every day. Yet they do not generally get the flu.

  • How is it possible to avoid illness without avoiding contact with bacteria and viruses? Unless we live in isolation in a sterile environment, it is impossible to avoid contact with bacteria and viruses. Yet by changing our diet, getting enough physical activity and rest, taking nutritional or herbal supplements, etc, we can avoid falling ill so often.

  • Why are certain treatments, like Homeopathy and Traditional Chinese Medicine, effective against infectious diseases when they do not directly target the bacteria and viruses? Even osteopathy and chiropractic, which involve manipulation of the body's skeletal structure and are usually applied to reduce aches and pain, have a high success rate in helping sufferers recover from the flu.

Koch's postulates

Pasteur's germ theory of disease runs into problems when we consider what are known as Koch's postulates.

Robert Koch (1843 - 1910) was a contemporary of Louis Pasteur and he drew up a set of conditions that were necessary to prove the germ theory of disease - that germs cause sickness. Koch's postulates are:

  1. The microorganism must be found in abundance in all organisms suffering from the disease, but should not be found in healthy animals.
  2. The microorganism must be isolated from a diseased organism and grown in pure culture.
  3. The cultured microorganism should cause disease when introduced into a healthy organism.
  4. The microorganism must be reisolated from the inoculated, diseased experimental host and identified as being identical to the original specific causative agent.

Well, Koch had to abandon Postulae #1 when he discovered that cholera and typhoid bacteria that do not cause symptoms of the two diseases. Today, we know of many more. For example, there are people infected with the HIV virus who develop Aids and die quickly, but there are also others who lead healthy, symptom-free lives for more than 10 years.

As for Postulate #3, Koch himself proved that not all people (or lab animals) exposed to tuberculosis and cholera bacteria will get the disease. Koch therefore used the would "should" instead of "must".

In some cases, Postulate #2 also cannot be fulfilled becaue there are some microorganises that still cannot be isolated and grown in a pure condition.

Koch's postulates are therefore considered "sufficient but not necessary". If a bacteria or virus meets the four conditions, this is enough to cause disease. But it may not necessarily cause disease.

Abuse of antibiotics

Antibiotics have long been considered one of the biggest success stories of modern medicine. They have been credited for wiping out killer diseases like cholera, tuberculosis, smallpox, measels and others. All thanks to Louis Pasteur and the germ theory of disease.

But did antibiotics really wipe out diease? If you examine closely the historical death rates from various infectious diseases, you will see very clearly that the death rate had plunged dramatically, in some cases by more than 99 percent, before the introduction of antibiotics, vaccination and other "medical miracles".

What caused the sharp decline in death rates? Improved sanitation and modern hygiene, not antibiotics.

The real effect of the widespread use of antibiotics as well as anti-viral drugs is this - they have caused bacteria and viruses to develop drug-resistant strains. Meanwhile, new strains of viruses, like HIV and now, bird flu and Mexican swine flu, have appeared.

HIV, the virus that is said to "cause" Aids, appeared in the 1980s. In the 1990s, drug resistant-strains of "old" diseases like tuberculosis and mataria started to become major problems and the death rates from these diseases began to rise sharply. In 2003, SARS appeared and caused widespread panic throughout East Asia.

It is worth mentioning here that antibiotics are ineffective against the flu and other viral diseases. This is because antibiotics destroy only bacteria while the flu is "caused" by viruses. Yet antibiotics are routinely prescribed for flu patients - sometimes because patients demand these drugs, sometimes because doctors prescribe them as a precautionary measure, in case a viral infection leads to a bacterial infection.

Yet over-prescription of antibiotics is actually a small part of the problem. The bigger problem concerns antibiotics fed to farm animals - which account for more than 90 percent of the antibiotics produced. When we eat the meat of these animals, we are constantly taking in low doses of antibiotic residues. And this contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The culture of killing

Associated with the use and abuse of antibiotics is the culture of killing that has developed within modern medicine - again thanks to the germ theory of disease.

Many medical treatments are based on the idea of killing, or otherwise removing the "enemy". Infectious diseases are treated by killing bacteria and viruses. Cancer is treated by killing cancer cells. Heart disease is treated by surgery to remove blocked arteries. And so on.

Doctors have become so obsessed with "killing the enemy" that they don't even care if the patient suffers as a result of it. Chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer are prime examples. They cause such horrible side effects that patients suffer more as a result of these treatments. And they die more from the side effects of these treatments than from the cancer itself.

Chemotherapy treatment for cancer, for example, greatly reduces the patient's immune response. As a result, they might succumb easily to infection and die from pneumonia, tuberculosis, etc - not from cancer. Likewise, patients who undergo organ transplant have to take immune suppressing drugs - and be very careful to guard against infectious diseases.

Once, I came across a case where a certain medical treatment was declared a great success - even though the patient died. It was declared a great success because the treatment had successfully destroyed the bacteria, virus or whatever it was that "caused" the sickness. The fact that the patient died in the process did not seem to matter.

I had written about this in The Good Life magazine that I used to publish, but cannot remember the references. I will add the details if and when I find them. But it really did happen. The patient died yet the treatment was declared a great success!

The harm of vaccination

As with antibiotics, vaccination is a direct result of the germ theory of disease and has been hailed as a miracle of modern medicine. But again, historical records show that the death rates for various diseases fell sharply before vaccination was introduced, not after.

In Germany, for example, smallpox vaccinations were introduced in 1875. But between 1872 and 1874, deaths from smallpox had plummeted from 70,000 to 1,000. (No typo error here, it is 70,000 to 1,000 -- a very dramatic decline.) The pattern is similar for other diseases – the death rate plunged before vaccination, not after.

What increased sharply after vaccination was introduced is alarming - the incidence of autism among children. This is believed to be due to mercury being used as a perservative in most vaccines.

Apart from mercury, vaccination comes with other dangers and side effects too. The theory, following from the germ theory of disease, is that vaccines contain a weakened form of the bacteria or virus and this stimulates the body's immune response against the disease.

The reality is something else altogether. In recent years, many infectious diseases that were supposed to have been "wiped out" by vaccination have made strong comebacks. And in the majority of cases, the people affected were those already vaccinated. Rather than protect these people against disease, vaccination appears more likely to have made them more prone to new strains of the same disease.

With regards the flu, the US and some European countries recommend people to take flu vaccines every year, during the winter season why flu outbreaks peak. Yet a number of scientific studies reveal that the benefits of flu vaccines had been exaggerated and that these vaccines don't really work.

I will discuss this more thorougly in the article on flu vaccine side effects. Click here to read more about the (in)effectiveness of flu shots.

The harm of pasteurisation

Finally, we take a look at pasteurisation, which is yet another universal practice that grew out from the germ theory of disease. The process developed by Louis Pasteur to slow down the growth of microorganisms such that they become unlikely to cause disease.

In the case of milk, which is most commonly pasteurized, the milk is heated to about 71.7ºC for 15 to 20 seconds. Pasteurisation of milk was first proposed by by Franz von Soxhlet, not by Louis Pasteur who originally developed pasteurisation for wine. Today, most countries ban the sale of unpasteurised milk.

Howver, pasteurisation for milk was introduced not because raw milk itself presents a problem, but more because of contamination during storage and handling, with large scale milk production.

Yet the common belief is that raw milk is harmful. This is not so, provided the raw milk comes from healthy cows fed a natural diet of grass and other plants, not from modern cows that have been fed grains and other unnatural foods. These cows are already sick, so naturally their milk is harmful - whether or not pasteurised.

Here again, we need to examine - does pasteurisation work?

Apparently not. In a developed country like the US, with have high hygiene standards, there have been scores of cases of milk poisoning in recent years, with thousands of people falling ill and some dying - and ALL these cases involve pasteurised milk. There had been no reports of milk poisoning from people drinking the raw milk of healthy, naturally-raised cows!

There is also mounting evidence that pasteurization renders milk harmful. Among other things, it changes the nature of the milk and makes the calcium in milk - at least 50 percent of it - not absorbable by the body. Some scientists even believe that pasteurization of milk causes heart disease, because it alters the nature of fat molecules in milk.

The germ theory of disease - summary

In summary, we find that the germ theory of disease, while it seems to make sense, does not totally prove that germs "cause" disease. It could well be the other way around - that once a person is sick (due to whatever other reasons), that person's body allows germs to thrive.

More worrying, however, are the implications of this germ theory of disease. When doctors and scientists think in terms of the germ theory of disease, they fight disease with antibiotics, vaccination and pasteurization. All of these come with very serious problems that are only now beginning to be understood.

If we want to stay healthy, we need to seriously look for alternatives to the germ theory of disease.

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