Revisioning Infectious Disease

Revisioning Infectious Disease

This is conceivably an essay that can grow into a much, much larger work… should time and interest permit. However, it would be inopportune for me not to at least provide some insights into the flaws of our modern perception, as well as providing one model that may provide a more complete and holistic view. There is nothing that is dramatically new or different in what is offered here: As with much in medicine, it is sometimes simply necessary to look at the facts and information with new eyes. It is my contention, here and elsewhere, that not only we are trapped by the short-sightedness of our vision, but that we fail to see that it passes in two directions.

To the victor, success, and the rewriting of history. So taken are we by the apparent success of the scientific worldview and its adversarial viewpoint, we now have imbedded in our so-called consciousness the belief that infectious disease is entirely the consequence of the invasion of the body by some sort of quasi-invisible agent who is bent on our destruction. This view has been reinforced enormously by the discovery and development of antibiotics in the medical armoury, which have been considered to have singlehandedly pushed back the onslaught and are still considered the main agents in the ongoing fight, although the almost routine use of and belief in immunisation is now pushing for the number one agent of defence in the warfare stakes.

But is this really the case? Wasn’t infectious disease already in decline with the improvement in diet, housing, and sanitation before the advent of antibiotics? What of the increasing threat of antibiotic resistance? Is the “terrorist” now winning the war? And, last but not least, is immunisation all it is cracked up to be, or has it overstepped its brief and invading other territory such as the host’s defences and the delicate balance of our immune systems? Or is this simply the concerns of the lunatic brigade in the alternative medical fringes?

All these questions are, in my view, entirely valid and each is worthy of extensive discussion. And, were we to take the time to explore them in anything like a little detail here, we would find not only that our still present fears about infectious disease are still justified, but also that we are seemingly simply progressing along a track of dealing with it that is increasingly failing in spite of what we are given to believe. Like the so-called “war” against cancer, when the treatment stops working the way the theory predicts that it should, then maybe it is the theory that should be reconsidered, as continuing on the same path is not only illogical, it is stupid and dangerous.
Prior to the modern mechanistic view of infectious disease, there was a belief that these diseases were intimately connected to the social and religious dimensions of human existence, such that being infected with a disease often carried moral overtones. Most particularly was this the case with the sexual scourges, such as syphilis, although the modern attitude toward AIDS still carries much of this. In the more modern context the baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater, as we have tended to exclude the mental and psychological dimensions and hence the broader picture of host receptivity to infection.

Maybe this might be reconsidered by using one significant and loaded piece of evidence, now largely ignored. When the pattern of acute infectious epidemics, such as influenza, is examined, the spread would appear to be considerably faster than the capacity of the virus to pass from person to person. Some astute observers have found that the spread conforms much more to an acute mass hysterical state, driven by fear and aided by the media, which bears more than a little consideration.

These remarks are far from exhaustive and could be examined in considerably more depth. They are used to indicate that our view of infection and the associated diseases is both relative and ignores many other intersecting approaches and considerations. What I believe we need is a broader and more holistic model that can embrace these in a more complete manner, otherwise we may be simply continuing with approaches, such as the excessive, inappropriate and many times concerning use of antibiotics and immunisation.

The above remarks in no way discount the role of the infectious agent, they are just bringing into question its significance and maybe the way it operates. The modern scientific worldview is characterised by various cognitive stances in the observer, such as a quantitative, reductive and generally mechanistic stance. However, the main stance is to see the infectious agent found in a disease as the cause of it, rather than, say, finding the infectious state a comfortable one in which to grow and propagate. Also we have an ongoing psychological disposition that is fundamentally extraverted separates the observer from the observed, as well as taking an adversarial view toward threatening agents in the environment. All of these, if brought into question, would automatically create a much broader and creative viewpoint, even to the point of a paradigm change.

There is a general questioning of all the above attitudes and positions with the rise of the influence of complementary medicine, itself a response to the decline of the exclusively scientific and mechanistic view toward medicine. This is not mere conjecture, however, as the increasing failure of antibiotics and the somewhat indiscriminate application of immunisation bears testament to change from within.

Gaining an increased hearing in the field is the role and importance of the immune system and hence the hosts receptivity to infection and insight into the ability to deal with external agents. The immune system has, to date, been relatively ignored as indicated in the influence of diet, housing, and sanitation in the initial decline of infectious disease morbidity and mortality earlier in the twentieth century.

There is now a veritable industry developing around the role and health of the immune system and with it the recognition that the health and care of the internal environment is an important component in dealing with infectious disease. Indeed, there are many that feel its role is fundamental and the ability of the so-called infectious agent to produce a disease is actually a consequence of the health of the immune system.

Yet we would be dramatically limiting the picture by simply looking at immunological health from the perspective of the physical organism. By now it has become apparent that the immune system is profoundly and intimately connected with not only the endocrine (hormone) and nervous systems, but with our mental states as a whole. Such a position is more fundamentally holistic and integrated, particularly if the importance of the emotional and feeling states are considered both in their own right, but also as bridges to all the systems they embrace.

The above implies a more deeply oriented state that is cognisant of our inner emotional and feeling states and how these are intimately connected with the body, often described under the term “affect”, or how things affect us, mind and body both. When such an orientation is taken the apparent dualism between mind and body dissolves into a fundamental unity where the various components are elated to each other in a more integrated and integral manner.
Such a position extends beyond us as individuals seeing the connections between self and environment in one, as well as self and the transpersonal or spirit in the mirror-imaged other direction as a greater unity. From this perspective the infectious agent can be considered literally that, only an agent in a broader drama. It may also be that whether it is an agent of destruction or one of change depends on our inner attitude toward the visitation. From a religious perspective we see suffering as an integral component in human change and personal salvation: Is it then such a short step to see infectious disease as agents of the divine?