August 4, 2020

Read an excerpt from Dr Bonnie Henrys Soap and Water and Common Sense: Nothing is immune to Microbes Inc

In Soap and Water and Common Sense, Dr Bonnie Henry traces the evolution of common sicknesses and explains how staying healthy boils down to basic hygiene.

As the coronavirus intensifies it’s grip on the world, the 2009 book Soap and Water and Common Sense: The Definitive Guide to Viruses, Bacteria, Parasites, and Disease by Dr Bonnie Henry becomes a vital read to revisit.

An epidemiologist and public-health doctor, Henry has spent over two decades chasing bugs all over the world, from Ebola in Uganda to polio in Pakistan and SARS in Toronto. In this book, she traces the evolution of common sicknesses and explains how staying healthy essentially boils down to basic hygiene. She offers three basic rules for people to avoid getting sick, phrases that have attained an intimate familiarity today: clean your hands, cover your mouth when you cough, and stay at home when you have a fever.

In this excerpt, she references Microbes Inc., a global “company” that has evolved over billions of years to rule the planet. Through a lively example, she discusses food-borne illnesses.

This excerpt has been published with permission from Juggernaut Books.


“Bear meat bites back” was the headline in a Canadian newspaper near the end of September 2005. It had been the trip of a lifetime for 10 hunters from across France who set out for the wilds of northern Quebec, to hunt for bear, and it was a successful one too. The group feasted on barbecued black bear that evening in the lodge. Most had their meat prepared medium or medium rare, despite its gaminess. A few days later two of the hunters took the remains home to France to share with family and friends. Sadly, none of them foresaw the terrible impact this simple act would have only days later. Within two weeks all ten hunters were complaining of symptoms ranging from muscle aches and headaches to high fevers, severe muscle pain, facial swelling, and inflammation of the brain. Several required extended treatment at a Paris hospital. One hunter had shared the delicacy with six relatives in central France, and half of them became ill about a week later. The other hunter shared his prize meat with seven friends soon after returning to his home in southern France, and one of the guests began suffering from the same symptoms.

All in all, fourteen of the twenty-three people who feasted on the black-bear meat contracted an illness from a parasite called Trichinella, a common boarder in bears, wild cats (such as cougars), foxes, dogs, wolves, seals, and walruses. Trichinella enters the human intestinal tract, where it releases its progeny into the blood. The larvae then migrate to the muscles, where they can live relatively protected from antibiotics for decades. Trichinellosis, the disease the parasite causes in humans, has been around for centuries, and we have known how to prevent it for almost as long — thoroughly cooking meat effectively kills the parasite. This story of international disease spread serves to remind us of the inherent risks in our food supply, and it is a small but potent example of the complexity of our global food economy.

Since scientists began tracking food-borne illnesses around the world, it has become painfully clear that nothing is immune to the many divisions of Microbes Inc. Common bacteria that cause food-borne illness include Salmonella and Shigella, which cause serious gastrointestinal illness, often resulting in bloody diarrhea (a sign of the severe inflammation the bug causes in the intestines), and Escherichia coli (E coli), whose many strains can cause everything from mild diarrheal illness to a severe systemic disorder called hemolytic uremic syndrome (hus), which causes bloody diarrhea and kidney damage and can be fatal.

In the Virus Division the most common bugs to cause disease through food include the Noroviruses, which bring on a short but explosive illness, symptoms of which include watery diarrhea and vomiting, and hepatitis A, a virus that affects the liver and can cause prolonged illness that may be passed on to others through contaminated food and water. In addition, several parasites have invaded our food and water systems, including Cyclospora and Trichinella, the bug that so affected the French hunters. Finally, some bacteria have the ability to produce potent toxins in humans. They go by names such as Clostridium perfringens, which causes the short but nasty illness that is often referred to as “food poisoning.”

Food is a fundamental human need, and much of our existence is spent in one way or another searching for sustenance. Since the beginning of time we have been locked in an intricate dance with the divisions of Microbes Inc to find food that provides us with the nutrition we need without giving the bad bugs direct entry into our systems, where they can make us sick. With the globalisation of our food supply and the complexity of our food production systems, it has become increasingly difficult to achieve and maintain this delicate balance.

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