One of the most memorable Greek tragedies is Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. In this tragic tale, the Oracle of Delphi tells Oedipus that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus, who is apparently well adjusted and loves his parents, is horrified and understandably freaks out. Desperate to avoid his fate, he leaves Corinth and his presumed parents, and flees to Thebes. Poor Oedipus is only a few steps into his panicked journey before he inadvertently kills his father, and then goes on to innocently marry his mother.
If you know the story you want to shout out a warning, “Oedipus, dude, you got it all wrong. Go back! Go back!” But this is a Greek tragedy and the unfortunate characters don’t take direction from the audience, leaving your heart to break as you witness the tragic unfolding of the inevitable, but completely avoidable, train wreck. Indeed, in this time-tested tragedy we have a cautionary tale of unintended consequences.
The problem of human disease is a vexing one, and as I learn about the history of infections, the changing role of sanitation and hygiene, the evolution of medical intervention and the contemporary skyrocketing rates of chronic illness, the tale of Oedipus resonates in an analogous way. It’s almost as if somewhere along the way a group of humans approached the Oracle for advice about dealing with persistent infectious disease. I can imagine the seer telling this group, “Look, disease is an inevitable part of the human condition. You will occasionally have an acute illness, and as challenging as that can be, it is a necessary part of life and you will have to find a way to make peace with it.”
In this scenario, it seems that those mythical folks emerged from their meeting with the Oracle unwilling to accept that human reality and deciding instead that they would go to whatever lengths they could to avoid all disease.
Today, in light of the “silent” epidemics in children and adults of chronic illness in the form of asthma, autoimmune disorders, allergy, autism, diabetes, cancer, behavioral and psychiatric disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, we have to wonder if, in our determination to avoid all acute illnesses, we have made a tragic trade that has unwittingly created lifelong chronic illnesses that have made us weaker and sicker than ever before.
Vaccines offered the well-intentioned promise of freedom from some acute inflammatory illnesses only to push relatively mild childhood illnesses such as chickenpox, mumps and measles into the adult population where the course of illness is potentially more severe. By avoiding the full inflammatory immune response required to process acute illness in childhood, we are left with an inadequately conditioned immune system that responds in a disorganized and inefficient manner across the lifespan resulting in autoimmunity and allergy.
Without the benefit of maternal antibodies passed through breastfeeding, infants become more vulnerable to illnesses at a time when their immune system is still developing, and without the episodic boost of exposure to chickenpox we have placed our elders at increased risk for painful shingles. Neurotoxic ingredients such as aluminum, mercury, DNA fragments, MSG, and formaldehyde in vaccines have been implicated by researchers in any number of medical conditions.
Even antibiotics, undoubtedly one of the most important inventions of the modern age, have, in their overuse and misuse (widespread use of personal antibacterial products and routine prophylactic use in animals raised for human consumption, for instance) created antibiotic resistant bacteria and changes in the gut bacteria that leave us vulnerable to a whole host of modern maladies. Researchers are just now beginning to piece together the story of the degraded Western microbiome and its intimate relationship to our mental and physical health.
Today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that half of all Americans (including children) suffer from some chronic illness, that one third have multiple chronic illnesses, that seven out of 10 deaths are the result of chronic illness, and that chronic illness accounts for 86 percent of all health care costs.
Obviously, there are many factors that contribute to these discouraging statistics, but is it possible that, as uncomfortable (and yes, occasionally fatal) as acute illness is, it plays a strengthening and necessary role in the human lifecycle? Rather than avoid inflammatory illnesses at all costs, would we be better served by finding new ways to support the body to deal with them and move through them?
Would it not be better to help people obtain the more perfect and sustainable form of cellular immunity achieved through the resolution of naturally acquired illness? Is it possible that the inconvenience of chickenpox or measles or even the common cold or flu make us hardier upon recovery and are necessary for the maintenance of a hardy immune system?
In light of the sheer numbers of people diagnosed with chronic, functionally debilitating illnesses, and the suffering and deaths that accompany them, it is imperative that we investigate the relationship between routine avoidance of acute inflammatory illness and the emergence of our chronic illness epidemics.
No one likes to be ill. But is it possible that in the pharma-fueled race to avoid every illness we, like Oedipus, have run straight into the arms of the very thing we set out to avoid? I believe the answer is yes, and that in our epidemics of chronic illness we are witnessing a human tragedy that ultimately threatens our very existence. And like with Oedipus, I want to call out a warning: “Hey folks, we’re running in the wrong direction. Slow down and take a few breaths, let’s find a way to make peace with our humanity.”