Viral Basics

In the movie Predator, the Good Guys encounter an Enemy about which they know nothing, except that it becomes readily apparent that the rules of the game are simple: kill or be killed. The enemy is strong, powerful, deadly, invisible, silent, ruthless.  The Good Guys have to redirect their behavior, adapt their tactics, and try to understand their opponent in the sense that they have to find a weakness.  Normally a collaborative approach would be the strongest tactic, but Hollywood action movies rarely have enough head space for more than one star.  The A list star solves all of the problems and the B list stars help by sacrificing themselves to a good cause.  Fighting an unknown enemy is fine if one has strong weapons at one’s disposal.  Fighting without weapons is much harder.

COVID-19 is a novel enemy, but it’s an insidious predator, and unlike the one Arnold Schwarzenegger had to fight.  A virus is on a reconnaissance mission to find weak spots.  It isn’t alive, it isn’t hunting for prey; it is making biochemical connections that indicate a doorway into a cell’s internal resources.  The virus exploits those opportunities and your immune system has the job of stopping that exploitation.  A novel virus has the advantage, however, because the immune system has no point of reference and no previous history for stopping the virus.  And until the immune system is educated on what to look for and attack, there is no stopping a novel virus other than the overall health of the body.

Viruses are like a spy that has found out all there is to know about your personal medical history.  It investigates what diseases you had as a child, your traumatic injuries, hospitalizations, current issues, recent diseases, chronic conditions, and all of your past and present bad habits.  This information is your health context.  The virus is able to find entry points into your system based on the weaknesses you have accumulated over your lifetime.  If there are a number of weaknesses, the virus may seem to be attacking from a number of directions and gaining a foothold will be much easier.  If there are few weaknesses or a robust health context, the virus may still find entry, but fail to gain a dominant position in the system, and the system will fight back successfully. 

Humans have a very strong constitution; our immune systems have been battle tested for thousands of years.  Each of us carries an immunological legacy from the survivors of the battles.  We have been given the tools to survive and those tools are honed further by personal experience.  Our immune systems have been educated by every disease and vaccine we have experienced.  And our hope is that a strong immune system will be able to respond in the face of novel enemies.  Unfortunately, the modern lifestyle is one that tends to weaken our defenses and novel viruses exploit those weaknesses.

Some weakening of our defenses is inevitable.  Of course, we are weakened with age, and age in combination with other traumas will compound the effects.  More importantly, what we have done in our younger years may be more important than age alone.  It’s becoming more apparent that some of the “traumas” to our defenses are as simple as inappropriate use of antibiotics, especially in children for whom antibiotics are often a regular part of life. Few adults routinely use antibiotics, but worried parents will reach for any effective solution when their child is sick.

Let’s be clear though, viruses and bacteria are not the same thing, not are antibiotics and vaccines.  Bacteria are alive; viruses are not.  Vaccines strengthen the immune system against both viruses and bacteria by educating it; antibiotics replace the immune system temporarily and only for bacterial infections until it can regain its previous effectiveness.  Antibiotics do not strengthen our immune systems.

Thus, we should be very wary of using drugs that interfere with and may damage normal functions.  We should also be very aware of the kinds of daily activities that can impair the function of our immune system.  Primary among activities that boost our immunity is the kind and quality of food we eat.  We need weapons to fight novel enemies and our first line of defense will be what we’re made of.

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