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Thursday, June 11

Cat shit and craziness, and when cleanliness is not next to godliness

That could explain it

In Soap Opera (June 7) I speculated that much mental retardation in the poorer countries could be traced to huge amounts of human shit and laundry detergent dumped directly into river water that people launder clothes in, drink from, and bathe in. (As soon as I can make sense out of how the phosphates and nitrates in feces and laundry detergent interact in river water I'll be posting more on the topic.    

On June 8 Seattle-pi published a report headlined New study links childhood cat ownership to schizophrenia later in life
New research finds that living with cats as a child might be a risk factor for developing mental disorders such as schizophrenia, and scientists think a tiny single-celled organism called Toxoplasma gondii [found in cat feces] might offer an explanation.
The author quoted a pediatric infectious disease specialist who noted that the new study:
... should not put parents with cats at home into a panic. There may be an association but that doesn’t mean there’s causation,” Schwenk explained to SFGate. “The study isn’t showing a direct link between toxoplasma and mental illness and the study authors are saying further research needs to be done.”
However, the June 5 CBS report quoted by Seattle-pi Cat parasite linked to mental illness, schizophrenia quotes a researcher who states unequivocally:
"In schizophrenia, the evidence of an association with T. gondii is overwhelming."
The association was researched and suspected for decades prior to publication of the new research. But the CBS headline and the specialist's statement quoted by Seattle-pi are misleading because "mental illness" is a broad category.

This means researchers are cautious about applying their findings beyond schizophrenia, even though childhood infection with T. gondii is strongly suspected in another serious brain disorder:  bipolarity. It might also be linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder and even addictive behavior.  It's regarding such suspected links that much more research has to be done before a definite association can be established.

And there isn't necessarily a 'direct' connection between ingestion of T. gondii and schizophrenia. From the Seattle-pi report:
For most healthy children and adults, toxo [T. gondii] doesn’t cause any clear problems because the immune system usually prevents the parasite from causing illness. Scientists suspect the parasite remains in the body and becomes dormant. But pregnant women should take precautions because toxo increases the risk of miscarriage and birth defects.
From the CBS report, infection with the parasite can also mean the sufferer experiences weeks of flu-like illness, and/or blindness, or even death. But of particular concern is that it's easier for a child to get infected by the parasite in its active phase than one might assume.  

It's not only babies and toddlers nibbling on cat litter or the feces who are at risk; the parasite clings to produce children eat if it isn't well washed or to contaminated dirt on a gardener's unwashed hands, and the parasite can be found in contaminated drinking water and undercooked meat.
In addition, the large number of feral cats and 'outdoor' domestic cats ups the chances that children playing outside can get infected by the parasite -- and that the parasite can be tracked indoors by people who don't remove their shoes before entering their domicile.

The number, as National Geographic reported in 2004, is staggering:  in urban areas (in the USA, at least) there are hundreds of feral or outdoor cats per square mile (1.6 square kilometers) — "more cats than nature can support."          

When one also considers that
  • many chronically homeless and criminally insane people are schizophrenic (often going undiagnosed until incarcerated or brought into the shelter system),
  • even with medication many schizophrenics can't hold a job and need lifetime government financial assistance, 
  • 10 percent of schizophrenics commit suicide, and
  • schizophrenia can strike a mentally healthy person with catastrophic suddenness,  
the seriousness of schizophrenia, and indications that along with other serious mental disorders it's on the increase, can't be overstated even though schizophrenia only affects about 1.2 percent  of the American populace. The low statistic masks an awful lot of misery and financial cost.  

Another cause for concern about T. gondii is that in 'developed' countries the human immune system is weakening, although this isn't mentioned in any of the reports I read about T. gondii's connection to schizophrenia. But it is a big concern I should think.  

Humans have been living with the parasite for a long time even though it can only reproduce in cats. From the CBS report:
T. gondii is the most common parasite in developed nations, according to Schizophrenia Bulletin. The cat-carried parasite can infect any warm-blooded species, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than 60 million people in the U.S. may have it.
So clearly a strong human immune system is capable of battling the parasite to a standoff or there would be many more schizophrenics in this country.  However, in America at least, the hyperfocus on cleanliness is becoming one of our most deadly enemies. This is one area where cleanliness is not next to godliness.  

It's gone far beyond laundry bleach and antibacterial soaps; there are clothing manufacturers that now add antibacterial agents in clothes and socks.

It's coming to the point where Americans don't want to reside and work anymore only in a clean environment; we want sterile. 

Supporting and even fueling this trend are corporations that have adopted 'open' office configurations, which dispense with cubicles and seat employees almost elbow to elbow (as they've done for decades in Japan); factory owners that require sterile or near-sterile conditions for assembly lines, and in general all businesses, which try to limit as much as possible employees taking sick days.  The very high cost of health care is also a contributor to the trend.
The kicker is that the obsession with cleanliness now extends to our dogs. I don't think even the French, who are the world's greatest dog lovers, have gone as far as Americans in treating their dogs as if they're human babies. Much of this is frustrated parental instincts amongst America's many childless couples and the need for companionship among American elderly who are greatly isolated from daily human contacts.  

But treating dogs as human babies has meant much shampooing of pooch, frequent washing of doggie sleeping mats and food and water bowls, brushing of doggie teeth, and scold doggy if it looks as if it might taste an interesting piece of garbage on the street. So even our dogs' immune systems are weakening. This situation extends to many house cats. 

All this evokes War of the Worlds, which saw invaders from another planet wiped out by ordinary Earth germs.  Our intention to protect ourselves at all cost from germs means we risk wiping ourselves out  

By the way this is why I'm a fan of the annual flu vaccination. Once a year the human immune system gets to play hero, under relatively safe conditions, by trouncing a host of bird viruses.  At least this is a little healthy exercise for the increasingly flabby American immune system.

To return to the specific issue of T. gondii and brain disorders, one can only speculate at this time how the growing body of evidence linking these will impact the health care, medical research, and pharmaceutical industries. Not to mention the social service industry.

Those industries have made vast fortunes tending to people with mental disorders. I'm sure they'll rejoice, in an abstract kind of way, that very serious types of mental illness can have the relatively simple cause of cat shit. But somewhere in all this I find great irony.


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