A popular story in the New York Times this week is No, You Don’t Have to Drink 8 Glasses of Water a Day. It says that contrary to conventional wisdom it’s not true that you have to drink that much water; there’s just no science behind it. In fact, it turns out to be a myth that traces back to a 1945 Food and Nutrition Board recommendation that said people need about 2.5 liters of water daily. But everyone forgot the sentence that followed: “Most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods.”
Another interesting myth is that we only use 10% of our brain: not so again; recent evidence tells us we use pretty much all of it.
While these myths seem relatively harmless, there are a number of “truths” floating around in the field of infectious disease that do cause harm.
For example, we generally believe hospitals to be safe places. Yes, they’re staffed by dedicated professionals and we only go there when we have to, but hospitals are not as safe as we think. Incredibly, twice as many people die of preventable hospital deaths every week in the US – some 8,400 people — than died in all of the Iraq War. And about 25% of these deaths occur because of infections you contract at the hospital.
Perhaps the biggest misconception we adhere to is that antibiotics cure sore throats, runny noses, chest colds, and pneumonia’s. For the most part antibiotics don’t work on these things because they’re caused by viruses and antibiotics only kill bacteria.
And when you use antibiotics inappropriately you inadvertently create another problem for yourself: you increase your chance of getting an infection. That’s because most antibiotics kill ALL bacteria, the “good” and the “bad.” Your good bacteria operate in conjunction with your immune system to protect you from disease. So if you knock them out with an antibiotic and are then exposed to a disease-causing germ, the chance of that germ making you sick goes up – way up. As one specialist puts it: “Has any health-care professional ever told you that taking antibiotics would increase your susceptibility to infection?”
Then there’s the myth that we’ve conquered diseases that we actually haven’t. Take for example the biggest contagion in human history – the Black Death, also known as the Bubonic Plague, or simply the Plague, that in the 14th C knocked off as many as 200 million people.
Since April of this year 11 people in the US have become infected with the Plague and 3 have died, which is about triple the normal rate.
We don’t hear much about the Plague because with early intervention antibiotics can treat it. But there’s a catch: we’re approaching what the World Health Organization and others call a post-antibiotic era where, increasingly, these drugs just aren’t working anymore. So much so that a recent UK government report predicts that antibiotic resistant infections will cause more deaths – about 10 million a year — than cancer by the year 2050.
Which brings us to our final myth: given the looming peril these huge numbers indicate we’ll now give antibiotic resistant disease the attention it deserves – or maybe not. Because psychologists tell us that just the opposite happens: “When the numbers [of dead or injured] go up, the amount of sympathy people feel goes perversely down. And with it goes the willingness to donate money or time to help.” Psychologists call this the “collapse of compassion.” It means that “when people see multiple victims, they turn the volume down on their emotions for fear of being overwhelmed.” Put another way: The death of one person is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic.
The trick, of course, is to make sure that we don’t fall into that statistic.