Read an excerpt from the book "Soap, water and common sense" by Dr. Bonnie Henry: nothing is immune to Microbes Inc

In Soap, Water and Common Sense, Dr. Bonnie Henry traces the evolution of common illnesses and explains how staying healthy comes down to basic hygiene.

As the coronavirus intensifies its dominance over the world, the 2009 book Soap, water and common sense: the definitive guide to viruses, bacteria, parasites and diseases by Dr Bonnie Henry becomes a vital read to revisit.


An epidemiologist and public health doctor, Henry has spent more than two decades chasing insects around the world, from Ebola in Uganda to polio in Pakistan and SARS in Toronto. In this book, she tracks the evolution of common illnesses and explains how staying healthy comes down to basic hygiene. It offers three basic rules for people to avoid getting sick, phrases that have reached an intimate familiarity today: clean your hands, cover your mouth when you cough and stay home when you have a fever.

In this excerpt, she refers to Microbes Inc., a global "company" that evolved over billions of years to govern the planet. Through an animated example, she discusses foodborne illnesses.

This excerpt was published with permission from Juggernaut Books.



“Bear meat bites back” was the headline in a Canadian newspaper near the end of September 2005. It was the trip of a lifetime for 10 hunters from all over France who left for the wilderness of northern Quebec in search of bear, and was successful too. The group celebrated with grilled black bear that night at the lodge. Most had their meat prepared from medium to medium rare, despite their gaminess. A few days later, two of the hunters took the remains to France to share with family and friends. Unfortunately, none of them predicted the terrible impact that this simple act would have just a few days later. Within two weeks, all ten hunters were complaining of symptoms ranging from muscle pain and headaches to high fever, severe muscle pain, facial swelling and inflammation of the brain. Several needed prolonged treatment in a Paris hospital. A hunter shared the delicacy with six relatives in central France and half of them became ill about a week later. The other hunter shared his prized meat with seven friends shortly after returning to his home in southern France, and one of the guests began to suffer from the same symptoms.


Altogether, fourteen of the twenty-three people who feasted on black bear meat contracted a disease from a parasite called Trichinella, a common boarder in bears, wild cats (like cougars), foxes, dogs, wolves, seals, and walruses . Trichinella enters the human intestinal tract, where it releases its progeny into the blood. The larvae migrate to the muscles, where they can live relatively protected from antibiotics for decades. Trichinellosis, the disease that the parasite causes in humans, has been around for centuries, and we know how to avoid it for almost as long – cooking meat completely kills the parasite effectively. This story of the international spread of disease serves to remind us of the risks inherent in our food supply, and is a small but potent example of the complexity of our global food economy.

Since scientists began tracking foodborne illnesses around the world, it has been painfully clear that nothing is immune to the many divisions of Microbes Inc. Common bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses include Salmonella and Shigella, which cause serious gastrointestinal illnesses, usually resulting in bloody diarrhea (a sign of the severe inflammation the insect causes in the intestines) and Escherichia coli (E coli), whose many strains can cause everything from mild diarrheal disease to a serious systemic disorder called hemolytic-uremic syndrome (hus), which causes bloody diarrhea and kidney damage and can be fatal.

In the Virus Division, the most common bugs to cause disease through food include Noroviruses, which cause a short but explosive disease, whose symptoms include diarrhea and watery vomiting, and hepatitis A, a virus that affects the liver and can cause long-term illness. . that can be passed on to other people through contaminated food and water. In addition, several parasites have invaded our food and water systems, including Cyclospora and Trichinella, the insect that has so affected French hunters. Finally, some bacteria have the ability to produce potent toxins in humans. They use names like Clostridium perfringens, which causes the short but unpleasant disease, often called "food poisoning".

Food is a fundamental human need, and much of our existence is spent in one way or another in search of sustenance. Since the beginning of time, we have been involved in a complex dance with the divisions of Microbes Inc to find foods that provide us with the nutrition we need, without giving bad insects direct entry into our systems, where they can make us sick. With the globalization of our food supply and the complexity of our food production systems, it has become increasingly difficult to achieve and maintain this delicate balance.


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