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Worms vs. Germs

Worms vs. GermsTufts' Joel Weinstock believes that parasitic worms known as helminths may help to prevent some immunological diseases.

Boston [01.07.08] For decades, people in the United States have focused on improving their hygiene. But is there such a thing as being too clean? According to one Tufts expert, a little dirt may be just what the doctor ordered to stay healthy.

"Public hygiene and cleanliness are very good for us, but removing ourselves entirely from our natural environment is bad for us," Joel Weinstock, a clinical professor at Tufts School of Medicine, told The Boston Globe. "We need to figure out the aspects of dirt and exposure that are good for us and hopefully we can find a balance."

Weinstock, the chief of gastroenterology at Tufts-New England Medical Center, is already making progress toward that goal. His research focuses on helminths, intestinal worms that he believes may be beneficial to our health. He explained to the Globe that after developing countries began deworming children in the mid-1900s, several immunological diseases are on the rise, including hay fever, asthma, diabetes inflammatory bowel diseases and multiple sclerosis.

Weinstock's theory? "Perhaps deworming was helping these diseases," he told the Globe.

With lab tests involving these parasites currently taking place, Weinstock's work is not going unnoticed. In its recent "Genius Issue," Esquire magazine named him one of the "Best and Brightest" of 2007.

The magazine described Weinstock's research as being part of a "brand-new scientific revolution, a paradigm shift in the way we think about the human body." Rather than protecting ourselves against certain germs, maybe we should embrace them, he believes.

"What if a child is like an unprogrammed computer and the worms are like software that boots up our immune defense systems?" Esquire wondered.

The magazine isn't the only one with questions.

"I get about 5,000 e-mails a year from patients all over the world asking what to do," Weinstock told the Globe. "People know that something isn't right. They keep their kids in the cleanest environments and they get asthma. We get all of these things that were rare becoming common. And a lot of it comes down to hygiene. Excessive hygiene can potentially lead to disease."

Weinstock told the newspaper that he hopes his research may eventually lead to therapies and vaccines to help treat and prevent some immunological diseases.

"Will people be afraid to take a worm pill?" he asked the Globe? "I don't think so."

In the meantime, however, he's advising the parents who e-mail him about their children to let down their guard just a little bit.

"When people ask me what to do, I tell them to let their kids play in the dirt," he told the Globe. "And it's OK if they don't wash their hands every time."

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