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Lyall Watson on Michael Andrews, Slightly Foxed Issue 14 - David Eccles

Fellow-Travellers, or The Trouble a Book Can Cause

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Florence Nightingale steadfastly refused to believe in bacteria, but she was wrong. The horrid truth is that every one of us carries billions of fellow-travellers, and no amount of bathing can ever change their number. The good news, however, is that most of our resident flora and fauna are harmless, or actually beneficial to our health.

In 1976, Michael Andrews published these tidings in his bestselling The Life that Lives on Man, with all the details of our intimate companions in the micro-deserts of our forearms and the swamps of our underarms. But he failed to convince me that such slithy beasts as parasitic roundworms and liver flukes were equally benign. So I tried some internal experiments of my own.

I like to travel alone.

If you go as a couple, you inhabit a little world that others see as self-sufficient and try to avoid disturbing. If you form part of a group, you become even more intimidating. So I usually choose to travel on my own, paying the price of occasional loneliness for the pleasure of being able to do precisely as I please – and for the kindness and curiosity that so often come the way of those who appear to be alone.

I say ‘appear to be alone’, because this isolation is nothing but an illusion. Each of us, wherever we go, is accompanied by a complex ecology of other creatures whose total number exceeds that of all the people on earth. We are inhabited, subdivided, rented and occupied by an amazing array of flora and fauna. And there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. It has little to do with being clean or dirty. After an hour in a Japanese onsen, or hot spring, the wildlife on the surface of your skin actually increases as the beasts and yeasts emerge from the nooks and crannies where they breed. And there is no reason to be upset by all this frenzied activity. The vast majority of inmates of your personal menagerie are not just harmless but actually beneficial. In some cases, they are essenti

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Florence Nightingale steadfastly refused to believe in bacteria, but she was wrong. The horrid truth is that every one of us carries billions of fellow-travellers, and no amount of bathing can ever change their number. The good news, however, is that most of our resident flora and fauna are harmless, or actually beneficial to our health.

In 1976, Michael Andrews published these tidings in his bestselling The Life that Lives on Man, with all the details of our intimate companions in the micro-deserts of our forearms and the swamps of our underarms. But he failed to convince me that such slithy beasts as parasitic roundworms and liver flukes were equally benign. So I tried some internal experiments of my own. I like to travel alone. If you go as a couple, you inhabit a little world that others see as self-sufficient and try to avoid disturbing. If you form part of a group, you become even more intimidating. So I usually choose to travel on my own, paying the price of occasional loneliness for the pleasure of being able to do precisely as I please – and for the kindness and curiosity that so often come the way of those who appear to be alone. I say ‘appear to be alone’, because this isolation is nothing but an illusion. Each of us, wherever we go, is accompanied by a complex ecology of other creatures whose total number exceeds that of all the people on earth. We are inhabited, subdivided, rented and occupied by an amazing array of flora and fauna. And there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. It has little to do with being clean or dirty. After an hour in a Japanese onsen, or hot spring, the wildlife on the surface of your skin actually increases as the beasts and yeasts emerge from the nooks and crannies where they breed. And there is no reason to be upset by all this frenzied activity. The vast majority of inmates of your personal menagerie are not just harmless but actually beneficial. In some cases, they are essential to your health and well-being. The two square metres of your skin surface are divided up into a variety of ecosystems which range from the moist, tropical forests of the armpits, to the cool, arid deserts on the back of the forearm. Each of these habitats is occupied by bacteria, viruses, yeasts, insects and mites – often as many as 3 million per square centimetre. And, like the inhabitants of any desirable residence, they protect their homes. If a culture of typhoid germs – those of the deadly Salmonella typhi – is smeared on healthy human skin, every single one of them is devoured by the local wildlife within twenty minutes. We only fall prey to such invaders when our resistance is low or they bypass the usual defences and get in through wounds – or through our open mouths. These facts are well-known, but we still seem to have some difficulty coming to terms with what ecology really means. It means living and working in mutual dependence. But we continue to use deodorants and anti-perspirants which are specifically designed to kill off or destabilize the natural populations of micro-organisms that, left to themselves, protect us constantly, night and day, from infection by foreign fungi and bacteria which cause irritations, inflammation, thrush, trichomoniasis and even brain damage. It is obvious that we can be too clean for our own good. And this obsession puts us at even greater risk whenever we leave our normal environment and become exposed to infection as we travel. The answer is to look after your personal flora and fauna at all times, making sure to treat them particularly kindly when you are about to go abroad. Which means taking less medicine, prophylactics or prescription drugs when you prepare for a trip – not more. And it might help even to consider, perhaps, ways of adding to your population of useful fellow-travellers when it comes time to pack and pick up your passport. I try to do just that. I gave up using harsh soaps and detergents twenty years ago when I discovered what happened when I didn’t wash at all. I was in the Sahara at the time, trying to stay alive beside a Land Rover that had given up the ghost. There were three of us, and we had very little water – just enough to last a month if we each drank the bare minimum necessary to prevent dehydration. There was nothing to spare for personal hygiene of any kind, so we didn’t bother. In the first two weeks, it was extremely unpleasant. Our bodies and clothes became rank and stiff and smelly. I could hardly bear my own company, and if it hadn’t been so cold at night, I would have given up sharing the vehicle with the other two castaways . . . but by the end of the third week, everything suddenly changed. It wasn’t just that we got used to being dirty and no longer noticed the smell. All of a sudden, there was no smell. After three weeks of peace, during which they had not been disturbed by water or massacred by poisonous chemicals, our natural body oils and indigenous bacteria settled into an easy equilibrium and began to look after themselves. Together, they overcame the invaders whose multiplication causes offensive body odours – and we began to feel not just comfortable but actually very well indeed. And I cannot remember a time when my skin or hair looked healthier. We were rescued a week later, just in the nick of time, and it wasn’t long before I was showering and shampooing again. These activities provide pleasure of their own. But I have been careful ever since to use only natural oils and herbal preparations – and these as sparingly as possible. The experience, however, set me thinking and I began to wonder if there were not similar ways in which I could enhance and encourage good internal ecology. The biggest problem facing an adventurous traveller, particularly in tropical areas, is the risk of intestinal infection. There are places where, the moment you leave the tourist routes, with their bottled water and deep-frozen international food, you need to take pot luck with local dishes. This is normally no hardship. I know of no better way of meeting people and enjoying new flavours and experiences. But sooner or later, you are going to come across a microbe so alien that it overwhelms your tame flora and fauna. And then you suffer, sometimes for weeks on end, from the debilitating effects of diarrhoea, enteritis and dysentery. After my third or fourth experience of being laid low in India or Afghanistan, and missing most of what I had gone there to see or do, I grew tired of this miserable tax on independent travel and began to look for ways around the trauma. I was old and wise enough by then to know that you cannot fight nature with drugs or artificial chemicals. These may cure minor problems, but they do so by such drastic means that they lay you wide open to the risk of far more serious infection. So I started a process of self-inoculation. Whenever I was due to take part in an expedition or wanted to attend a particular seasonal ceremony in some out-of the-way place, I would make sure to arrive at least a week early, book into a small, comfortable hotel or guest house, and make a point of going out into the local market and sampling one or two of the most interesting dishes on offer from enterprising, but clearly unhygienic, street vendors. The most successful and satisfying are soups, which usually contain a bit of everything available, including the latest and most inventive microbes. And if these are going to upset my ecology, I let them do just that without interference while I can rest and fast in reasonable reach of a lavatory. All it takes is a few days of adaptation, and then I can set off suitably equipped with sufficient local resistance to render me immune to most further disturbance. By and large, this system works very well. But it takes time and patience, and I yearned for some more efficient approach. I found it, quite by accident, in an article on the ecology of flatworms. The Platyhelminthes are simple worms with rudimentary organs and only just enough nervous sophistication to have a definite head end. Some are free-living, found in moist habitats in sand or under rocks, but the most successful are parasitic – living on or in another organism which provides them with nourishment. And of these, the most varied and abundant are the tapeworms. There are over 3,000 species of these, ranging in size from about 1 millimetre to more than 15 metres long. They have no mouth or digestive system, absorbing food directly through their thin skins, taking care to anchor themselves in some suitably rich environment, hanging on to the stomach wall or intestine of a more advanced host. Several specialize in humans and, the article pointed out, all these are hermaphroditic. They have both male and female parts and fertilize themselves. They don’t need anybody else, and take care to avoid company by secreting an enzyme which inhibits the development of other embryos, eggs or larvae. So if you have a tapeworm, you can only have one – which sits there inside you, feeding and breeding and defending its territory. All of which sounds unpleasant and uncomfortable, because a long-term lodger can get to be enormous. But news of that antisocial enzyme interested me and I wondered whether it was specific in its action. No one seems to have done much work on it, but a look through the medical literature told me that it was rare, perhaps even impossible, for two kinds of tapeworm to be found in the same host. And there was even a suggestion that tapeworm owners seemed to be immune to roundworms and perhaps other kinds of intestinal parasites. That was all the encouragement I needed. My research had told me that getting rid of tapeworms was relatively easy. Modern treatments, though unpleasant, seldom take more than a few hours. And if the temporary possession of a worm could protect me from things like amoebic dysentery, from which you never completely recover, that was a small price to pay. So I turned up on the doorstep of the London School of Tropical Hygiene and said, ‘Good morning. Could I please have a tapeworm?’ They threw me out, of course. So I went away and prepared a very elegant little paper, outlining my thoughts and intentions, proposing that the prophylactic effect of tapeworm infection be put to a thorough field test, and offering myself as the experimental subject. And this time I made sure I had an appointment with the appropriate specialist. He listened, first with amusement, then with growing interest, and promised to give the proposal careful thought. A week later, he agreed to help me – provided I would sign a disclaimer absolving him and the School of any responsibility. So it was that I found myself one morning sitting down to drink a glass of water containing the embryos of my parasite of choice. I had been advised that the beef tapeworm Taenia saginata was easier to get rid of than the pork variety Taenia solium, so I chose some collected from a convenient cow. And six weeks later I was diagnosed as the proud owner of a full-grown tapeworm, who soon came to be known as ‘Fred’. I became rather attached to Fred, or he to me, and I soon discovered a useful by-product of our association – one that has, I believe, been exploited by unscrupulous hawkers of ‘miracle diets’. I could eat as much as I liked without putting on weight. I was, after all, eating for two. And Fred, it soon became apparent, was particularly fond of carbohydrates, making short work of things such as chocolate and honey. Anyway, suitably equipped, we went travelling together – back to some of my favourite haunts in the Middle East and India. And, for the first time in my experience of the area, I never got ill. Not once in nine months. I ate absolutely everything. I did exactly as I pleased, even – in a supreme test of our association – drinking water direct from the Ganges. On my return to London, I agreed, reluctantly, to take a quinacrine compound which purged me so violently that the whole worm, complete with hooked head, emerged intact, all 10 metres of him/her – which I promptly collected and kept in a bottle. I was sad to be separated. We had made a good team. There may have been a time, before modern medical paranoia, when everyone had a tapeworm virtually from birth and reached an accommodation with it that lasted a lifetime. But I am persuaded by my parasitologist friends that long-term infestation in my case, at my age, could lead to complications such as anaemia or liver damage. So I have resorted to simply borrowing a worm when I know I am going to have to live in some remote tropical area for a while, eating whatever comes my way. And Mabel and Harry have travelled with me to Africa and Mexico, respectively. I am between worms at the moment, taking things easy, but always looking for other ways in which I can add usefully to my own ecology. You can never have too many friends.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 14 © Lyall Watson 2007


About the contributor

Lyall Watson is a wandering naturalist who finds most pleasure in the strange ends of life. He is also the author of more than twenty books, including Supernature.

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