Volume 12, Number 28
May 9, 2006

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Societal Immunity and Allergy

National Geographic Türkiye magazine seems to be greatly concerned with the modern “allergy epidemic” in its May 2006 issue.*

According to an article by Judith Newman published in this month’s National Geographic, 54.3% of Americans are allergic to one or more allergens. Moreover, the number of people with a life-threatening allergy to peanuts doubled from 1997 to 2002 (no, it’s not a joke, peanuts can be deadly for some people). All the statistics given in the article point out that industrialized countries have a higher ratio of allergic individuals.

As the article continues, Newman tries to come up with the possible causes of the “allergy epidemic.” She lists these factors: genetic inheritance, modern nutrition habits, excessive usage of antibiotics, pollution and exaggerated hygiene.

As you can see, all of the causes (except for genetics) are the products of our superb, fantastic, incredible, spectacular, lovely modernity. The illness itself is strengthened by a system that tries to wipe out all illnesses.

There, we see the first “coincidence.” The paradox within our attempts to wipe out health problems appears in the very existence of the magazine itself: countless forests are cut down (which obviously increases pollution worldwide because they're the only possible natural mechanism to clean the air and maintain the natural balance) to produce the pages of National Geographic magazine in order to declare that pollution increases allergies!**

Furthermore, two other causes of allergies also fit into the same pattern. Excessive usage of antibiotics and hygiene are most probably rooted in an obsession of today's global society: being totally disinfected, protected from all dangers and able to live forever. In other words: denial of the inevitability of illness and death. And such articles don’t heal this obsession-­they worsen it. The more you read about allergies (i.e., illnesses), the more concerned you become about how you can protect yourself from them.

Thus, it can be said that the article does more than just observing the fact: it contributes to it. The magazine states that John Bostock*** once pointed out that hay fever is peculiar to the “educated segment of the society,” and it’s hard not to notice an interesting intersection: National Geographic magazine is read by the same segment of the population. So, are we sure that such articles are nothing but benign results of the epidemics they tell us about?

What if we’re triggering such events at the same time as we’re trying to disseminate knowledge that will protect us from them? If so, there seems to be a dramatic similarity between our attitude and that of a paranoid immune system that creates an illness--an allergy--while trying to protect the body.

* “Dört Mevsim Allerji: Modern Çağın Salgını”
(“Allergies for Four Seasons: The Epidemic of the Modern Age”), National Geographic Türkiye, May 2006.

** An ironic observation by Stanislaw Lem: “We’re trying to stop people cutting down trees by making announcements in newspapers printed on paper produced from cut-down trees.”

*** John Bostock: The first doctor to define hay fever


İsmail O. Postalcıoğlu (POLS/III)

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