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Are We Overusing Antibiotics and Antibacterial Products?

The second part of the controversy over antibacterial products has to do with the way in which the human immune system develops, rather than the things that it protects you against (like dangerous bacteria). When a baby is born, he already has an immune system that will protect him against many diseases. However, the immune system functions best against a disease when it has encountered that disease before. In a sense, it has a memory and learns. As a child grows older and encounters more threats to its immune system, that system grows stronger because it learns how to recognize and respond more efficiently to those threats. This is why we give babies and children vaccines. Vaccines work by introducing a harmless version of a microbe into a person's body. When the microbe enters the body, the immune system immediately begins to learn about the intruder and how to get rid of it. It's kind of like a practice run -- giving your immune system the benefit of encountering the disease without putting you at any real risk.

But what does all this have to do with antibacterial products in your house? Some scientists think that if a child grows up in a nearly sterile environment -- one in which there are very few bacteria or other dangers for his immune system to encounter -- his immune system will be weaker because it hasn't had any practice fighting off diseases and other threats. Though no human baby has ever been raised in a completely sterile lab environment, rabbits, mice, guinea pigs, and rats have, and in no case did any of these animals develop a normal, healthy immune system.

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