The fact the latest “Bird Flu” in China has a 22% death rate means the following:  Of the hundred people known to have contracted the influenza, 22 died.  It says nothing about people who had milder symptoms, and didn’t bother seek a doctor.  For all we know, thousands may have caught this bug, and the death rate may be .022%.

The media doesn’t sell as many papers with a .022% death rate as it does with a 22% death rate, so we can expect some hype.  We can also expect individuals who make their living coming up with vaccines for influenza to rumple their brows and look very serious and to state “more research is urgently needed.”  Then they will hint it would be really nice if they had more funding.

On the other hand, a study of the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918 does sober one.  Over 500 million people caught it, and 3% to 5% of the world’s population died.  In places the death toll was higher, and in Samoa 20% of the people died.

If a similar situation arose today, it is likely modern medicine could do a lot to reduce the death toll.  First, in 1918 many died of secondary infections which we can now treat.  Second, in roughly two months we would start to have a vaccine available, and people could rush to get “flu shots.” Third, we know far more how such infections spread, and how to avoid situations which cause more severe strains of a virus to develop.

For example, usually sicker people stay home in bed, while less sick people go to work, and this tends to spread milder varieties while more severe varieties are isolated.  However in World War One soldiers could not go home, and the sicker ones were all grouped together in wards, which concentrated the more severe varieties in a preferential manner.

In 1918 my Grandfather’s commanding officer would not let my Grandfather go to the army hospital, and instead sent him to a bedroom in a castle they were occupying, because he simply felt soldiers who went to the army hospital died.  My Grandfather never forgot the special treatment he received, and the simple fact he was not exposed to secondary infections, as he lay gravely ill, may be the only reason I today exist.

All this being said, people tend to overreact to fears of a plague, and, in their efforts to avoid all contact with germs, create a situation where they have weakened immune systems, which are unable to handle germs, and even create situations which cause immune systems to malfunction.

Exposure is not always a bad thing.  From Wikipedia: “The fact that most of those (in 1918) who recovered from first-wave infections were now immune showed that it must have been the same strain of flu. This was most dramatically illustrated in Copenhagen, which escaped with a combined mortality rate of just 0.29% (0.02% in the first wave and 0.27% in the second wave) because of exposure to the less-lethal first wave.”

An irony in my family’s history is that my grandfather, who worked as an engineer to make sure the public had clean water, saw an unexpected side effect of clean water was that people were no longer exposed to polio when young, which made outbreaks worse (back before the vaccine,) for among the young polio usually resembled a cold, however among older people it was crippling and sometimes fatal.  Wealthy people with clean water tended to suffer more during polio outbreaks, and my Grandfather saw his favorite cousin die when she contacted polio while working in a charity children’s hospital, and then he saw my father crippled in the final polio outbreak in 1954.

When my father got polio, so did my mother and myself and my three older siblings, but our cases were milder.  So great was the fear of the illness in 1954 that my grandmother could find no one who dared step into her house to help her.  There is an irony in this, as well, for my father was a doctor and my mother a nurse; and this meant that when others got sick they helped, but when they themselves got sick others were reluctant to return the favor. In the end the person who stepped in to help my grandmother was a Christian Scientist, who believed in a God she could not see more than germs she could not see.

The observation that the rich suffer from certain illnesses, that the poor don’t suffer from, has been around a long time.


(click to enlarge)

More recently it has been noted that children who are from super-clean environments get asthma more than children from dirty farms.

The following quote is from http://www.webmd.com/parenting/d2n-stopping-germs-12/kids-and-dirt-germs

This line of thinking, called the “hygiene hypothesis,” holds that when exposure to parasites, bacteria, and viruses is limited early in life, children face a greater chance of having allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune diseases during adulthood.

In fact, kids with older siblings, who grew up on a farm, or who attended day care early in life seem to show lower rates of allergies.

Just as a baby’s brain needs stimulation, input, and interaction to develop normally, the young immune system is strengthened by exposure to everyday germs so that it can learn, adapt, and regulate itself, notes Thom McDade, PhD, associate professor and director of the Laboratory for Human Biology Research at Northwestern University.

Exactly which germs seem to do the trick hasn’t yet been confirmed. But new research offers clues.

In a recent study, McDade’s team found that children who were exposed to more animal feces and had more cases of diarrhea before age 2 had less incidence of inflammation in the body as they grew into adulthood.

Inflammation has been linked to many chronic adulthood illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.

“We’re moving beyond this idea that the immune system is just involved in allergies, autoimmune diseases, and asthma to think about its role in inflammation and other degenerative diseases,” McDade says. “Microbial exposures early in life may be important… to keep inflammation in check in adulthood.””

Reading the above filled me with a sense of relief, because running a Childcare on a farm exposes me to a lot of criticism regarding the harm I might be doing by exposing children to germs.  I don’t blame parents for loving their children and wanting to spare them from all illness, however there is such a thing as being overly protective.

There are quite a number of rules and regulations regarding “fecal matter.”  This makes good sense when changing diapers, and only an idiot would switch from changing a diaper to preparing a snack without properly washing their hands.  However on a farm “fecal matter” is also called “manure,” which was called “brown gold” by the old time farmers because it is an excellent and important fertilizer.  However, because it is “fecal matter,” children need permission slips to leave our playground and go in our vegetable garden, and that is only allowed by calling it a “field trip,” which involves bringing a first-aid kit, paperwork, and other rigmarole public school teachers face when they go on a field trip. All this, for walking ten yards through a garden gate to pick a radish!

Ah!  The wonders of government!

When showing the children how to milk a goat they are likely exposed to all sorts of bacteria, in fine particles of dust in the air of the stable. There are some who cringe at the thought of such exposure, and would have us pasteurize the air, as well as the milk.

Raw milk causes the FDA and “Big Dairy” to mount a podium and lecture about the dangers of three specific bacteria, however in all the United States there were only eight cases of infection through raw milk last year, while there may be thousands of cases of asthma caused by NOT being exposed to ordinary childhood germs.

The idea that children who attend daycare show lower rates of allergies is quite startling, for it is obvious children exposed to other children are going to share germs.  It would seem children attending daycare would be less healthy.

At our Childcare we are constantly wiping running noses, and our hands get chapped because we wash them (or use hand sanitizer) after we blow a child’s nose. At times this washing seems rather futile, for the children handle the same toys (and each other) and there is no way to wash every Lego every time a child touches it.  Therefore we do tend to see colds, coughs and fevers pass through our Childcare.

The question then becomes, “Who started it?”  I’ve seen parents scowl indignantly at other parents.  However I have yet to see a parent thank another parent for reducing their child’s chance of developing allergies.

However, if the H7N9 flu spreads, I do expect some to look with outrage at my chickens.


UPDATE:  In the comments at the website “Free Range Kids” a commentor “Sally” stated, “parents should be thrilled to have their children spending time on a “dirty” farm.”   and provided this link:   http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10651770/


  1. Sorry to hear you suffer from Asthma and allergies. I wonder what the trigger was, in your case? I don’t think they will fully understand the immune system any time soon, but what they are learning is pretty amazing.

    Believe it or not, most doctors and nurses smoked back in the 1950’s, and my childhood home was a haze of smoke. I think I was addicted even before I began smoking. Then I smoked like a chimney for many years. In the late summer when the ragweed pollen was thick I used to get an asthma-like congestion in my lungs, but I always figured I deserved it. My lungs cleared up pretty quickly when I stopped smoking. Apparently my lungs stayed in (relatively) good shape because I did a lot of heavy work, and huffing and puffing clears out the lungs. However in the case of smoke, exposure doesn’t seem to make you immune to anything. (It certainly doesn’t protect you from nagging.)

    Because my parents spent so much time working in hospitals they brought home all sorts of staph infections, and I got some ugly boils as a boy. This may have bolstered my immune system, and even might have saved my life. As a teenager I got myself into a crazy situation where I was on a sailboat several days from land with no radio, and got a bad infection on my fingertip. My body just walled the infection off, creating a sort of cyst, which was in the way as I handled ropes, but which allowed me to reach land and see a doctor. So in that case exposure might have been a good thing.

    Every cloud has a silver lining, and every silver lining has it’s cloud.

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