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An Epidemic of Absence:

A new way of understanding allergies and autoimmune diseases

by Moises Velasquez-Manoff

(New Scientist review)

IN NOVEMBER 2010, science writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff went to a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, to be infected with 30 flesh-burrowing hookworm larvae. This dubious act had a purpose: Velasquez-Manoff has eczema, asthma, allergies and alopecia universalis - an autoimmune disease that causes total body hair loss. This controversial new treatment purports to alleviate these conditions by infecting people with the very parasites humans have long fought to eradicate.

In An Epidemic of Absence, Velasquez-Manoff chronicles his experience with worm treatment. Eventually his allergies dwindle, fine hairs sprout and his eczema disappears. He also explores the underground community using parasites to try to treat asthma, Crohn's disease and autism.

He sprints adeptly through an exhaustive account of the immune system and our failure to grasp its complexities. We banished infections with sanitation and medicine, he says, but now have to face the consequences: overactive immune systems and a host of new conditions.

The examples of immunity out of balance are striking. In Karelia, an area split between Finland and Russia, for instance, the incidence of type 1 diabetes, coeliac disease and allergies is greater on the Finnish side where water is sanitised.

So does the immune system need the invaders it was designed to defend against? Velasquez-Manoff thinks so. The last 150 years of germ warfare were overkill, he argues, and now we need an "ecosystem restoration project" to bring back the microbes and parasites we evolved with.

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