One of the odd bits of folk lore / history involves ‘healing rivers’. There are stories from all over the world of folks with various illnesses being healed by immersion in various special waters. There are health spas built on the banks of lakes, seas, and springs. There are bottled waters “for your health”. Oh, and mud baths too.
has some neat artwork in it, but also illustrates the metaphorical nature of ‘healing rivers’ in our culture.
So just WHY would all those stories, products, spas, and cultural references come to be?
We saw one partial explanation in the Take A Bath posting where the ability of Magnesium to soak into the skin was described. Many mineral baths could just be fixing mineral deficits, and those can have wide ranging medical impacts. All those mineral spas, mud baths, mineral water beverages, and such can be just fixing up some of our dietary deficits.
But could there be more? Some of the stories involve dramatic cures for things like leprosy. It’s even in the Bible.
Naaman’s Journey to Israel
4 And Naaman went in and told his master, saying, “Thus and thus spoke the girl who is from the land of Israel.” 5 Then the king of Aram said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” And he departed and took with him ten talents of silver and six thousand shekels of gold and ten changes of clothes. 6 And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, saying, “And now as this letter comes to you, behold, I have sent Naaman my servant to you, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7 And it came about when the king of Israel read the letter, that he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man is sending word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? But consider now, and see how he is seeking a quarrel against me.”
That link goes to very great lengths to cast this, and the cure, in the light of God and the power of religion.
The Actions and Command of the Prophet
9 So Naaman came with his horses and his chariots, and stood at the doorway of the house of Elisha. 10 And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman was furious and went away and said, “Behold, I thought, ‘He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper.’ 12 “Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage.
In these verses we have a picture of the simplicity of salvation and of the necessity of humility in finding the Lord.
Here we have a statement that one river works better than others. And why might that be?
The Cleansing of Naaman
So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
The immediate cleansing illustrates the complete and instantaneous nature of salvation. We note that he was cleansed “according to the Word.” Salvation is always and only according to the Word, and never according to our feelings or emotions or human reason (cf. Rom 16:25-26). He was cleansed instantly and completely so that his flesh became like that of a little child, but not only his flesh, but his heart also. He became a new creature by faith in the Lord of Elisha the prophet.
Despite the claims about instantaneous cleansing and connecting it to ‘salvation’ of the soul, could there be a more direct reason? Might the ‘7 times’ be spread out, as repeated immersions and repeated curative exposures to a curative agent?
Is this a ‘miracle’ or is it an ‘act of nature’? (We will avoid, for the moment, the question of “Is there any difference between miracles and acts of nature that we do not understand?”)
Curing leprosy sure does LOOK like a miracle.
The wiki on bacteriophages has some interesting points to make on this. I think they matter…
This little buggers make bacteria sick. So are they rare or common? Do they hang around in mud and rivers? Is there any evidence for them being curative for human diseases? Well, yes.
Phages are estimated to be the most widely distributed and diverse entities in the biosphere. Phages are ubiquitous and can be found in all reservoirs populated by bacterial hosts, such as soil or the intestines of animals. One of the densest natural sources for phages and other viruses is sea water, where up to 9×10^8 virions per milliliter have been found in microbial mats at the surface, and up to 70% of marine bacteria may be infected by phages. They have been used for over 90 years as an alternative to antibiotics in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as well in France. They are seen as a possible therapy against multi drug resistant strains of many bacteria.
“most widely distributed and diverse entities in the biosphere” and “ubiquitous” are pretty clear. These guys are everywhere. The note about sea water is particularly interesting. One of my ‘peculiar habits’ is that when I’m near sea water, I take just a small sip. Whenever possible, I take a swim in it; but even if it’s just a touch, I like to take a bit of a salt lick. Rubbing a bit on my face if possible. I usually feel a bit better after a visit to the ocean… I’d typically attributed it to UV killing off some skin bacteria or a general uplift from being outdoors. But with a few zillion virions / slurp, that’s a pretty good dose of bacteriophages.
It’s also interesting that the Eastern Europeans have actually been using bacteriophages as medical treatment and we’re exploring what we can learn from them.
There is a bit of history in the wiki. Not much though. I think there is a lot of room for more learning to be done here.
Since ancient times, there have been documented reports of river waters having the ability to cure infectious diseases, such as leprosy. In 1896, Ernest Hanbury Hankin reported that something in the waters of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India had marked antibacterial action against cholera and could pass through a very fine porcelain filter. In 1915, British bacteriologist Frederick Twort, superintendent of the Brown Institution of London, discovered a small agent that infected and killed bacteria. He believed that the agent must be one of the following:
a stage in the life cycle of the bacteria;
an enzyme produced by the bacteria themselves; or
a virus that grew on and destroyed the bacteria.
Twort’s work was interrupted by the onset of World War I and shortage of funding.
Independently, French-Canadian microbiologist Félix d’Hérelle, working at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, announced on September 3, 1917, that he had discovered “an invisible, antagonistic microbe of the dysentery bacillus”. For d’Hérelle, there was no question as to the nature of his discovery: “In a flash I had understood: what caused my clear spots was in fact an invisible microbe … a virus parasitic on bacteria.” D’Hérelle called the virus a bacteriophage or bacteria-eater (from the Greek phagein meaning to eat). He also recorded a dramatic account of a man suffering from dysentery who was restored to good health by the bacteriophages.
In 1923, the Eliava Institute was opened in Tbilisi, Georgia, to research this new science and put it into practice.
In 1969 Max Delbrück, Alfred Hershey and Salvador Luria were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their discoveries of the replication of viruses and their genetic structure.
So with a barely explored part of the biological world, that has ‘ubiquitous’ distribution, we could have trillions and trillions of variations to play with. This is a ‘target rich environment’, IMHO, and those variations in type could easily explain why one river would would cure a disease and another not. The other implied quirk is that for a decent load of bacteriophages to exist, you need some bacteria… So all those times swimming in wild rivers, ponds, and seas; wading in muck, and sometimes having mud fights with the bacterial mat layer on top of the muck just might have been doing me some good… It is the sterilized chlorinated swimming pool that has little potential to be a ‘healing river’ of bacteriophages.
There is also a page on phage therapy that talks at some length about what is being done to use these little buggers to advantage. Here is the ‘history’ portion from that page:
Following the discovery of bacteriophages by Frederick Twort and Felix d’Hérelle in 1915 and 1917, phage therapy was immediately recognized by many to be a key way forward for the eradication of bacterial infections. A Georgian, George Eliava, was making similar discoveries. He traveled to the Pasteur Institute in Paris where he met d’Hérelle, and in 1923 he founded the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia, devoted to the development of phage therapy.
In neighbouring countries including Russia, extensive research and development soon began in this field. In the USA during the 1940s commercialization of phage therapy was undertaken by the large pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly.
Whilst knowledge was being accumulated regarding the biology of phages and how to use phage cocktails correctly, early uses of phage therapy were often unreliable. When antibiotics were discovered in 1941 and marketed widely in the USA and Europe, Western scientists mostly lost interest in further use and study of phage therapy for some time.
Isolated from Western advances in antibiotic production in the 1940s, Russian scientists continued to develop already successful phage therapy to treat the wounds of soldiers in field hospitals. During World War II, the Soviet Union used bacteriophages to treat many soldiers infected with various bacterial diseases e.g. dysentery and gangrene. Russian researchers continued to develop and to refine their treatments and to publish their research and results. However, due to the scientific barriers of the Cold War, this knowledge was not translated and did not proliferate across the world. A summary of these publications has been published recently in English in “A Literature Review of the Practical Application of Bacteriophage Research”
There is an extensive library and research center at the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia. Phage therapy is today a widespread form of treatment in that region. For 80 years Georgian doctors have been treating local people, including babies and newborns, with phages.
As a result of the development of antibiotic resistance since the 1950s and an advancement of scientific knowledge, there has been renewed interest worldwide in the ability of phage therapy to eradicate bacterial infections and chronic polymicrobial biofilm, along with other strategies.
Phages have been investigated as a potential means to eliminate pathogens like Campylobacter in raw food and Listeria in fresh food or to reduce food spoilage bacteria. In agricultural practice phages were used to fight pathogens like Campylobacter, Escherichia and Salmonella in farm animals, Lactococcus and Vibrio pathogens in fish from aquaculture and Erwinia and Xanthomonas in plants of agricultural importance. The oldest use was, however, in human medicine. Phages have been used against diarrheal diseases caused by E. coli, Shigella or Vibrio and against wound infections caused by facultative pathogens of the skin like staphylococci and streptococci. Recently the phage therapy approach has been applied to systemic and even intracellular infections and the addition of non-replicating phage and isolated phage enzymes like lysins to the antimicrobial arsenal. However, actual proof for the efficiency of these phage approaches in the field or the hospital is not available.
Some of the interest in the West can be traced back to 1994, when Soothill demonstrated (in an animal model) that the use of phages could improve the success of skin grafts by reducing the underlying Pseudomonas aeruginosa infection. Recent studies have provided additional support for these findings in the model system.
Although not “phage therapy” in the original sense, the use of phages as delivery mechanisms for traditional antibiotics constitutes another possible therapeutic use. The use of phages to deliver antitumor agents has also been described in preliminary in vitro experiments for cells in tissue culture.
One of the things that caught my eye was the recent approval of a phage treatment for Listeria. Listeria has been around as a food issue for a very long time. As a child, one local story was about a family just outside of town. These were very poor folks, making a living off a scrap of land and some odd jobs. The Dad had saved and scraped and bought a cow. He could now provide fresh milk to his family. In those days a cow as a major expenditure. Like buying a new car today. A government official of some kind came to town and tested the local cows. His was found to be harboring listeria and was ordered destroyed. It was a bit of a local fuss for a while. How was it ‘fair’ or ‘just’ for the government to take his animal and give no compensation? At the same time, Listeria is a terrible disease. Never mind that his family had no sickness (likely having become immune), there was a risk to others who might be exposed. The cow was killed. The town was a bit angry and frustrated. Life moved on. That was 50 years ago.
Now we have listeria in the news on crops. If you look up that bacteria, you find it is a fairly ubiquitous thing too.
Listeria can be found in soil, which can lead to vegetable contamination. Animals can also be carriers. Listeria has been found in uncooked meats, uncooked vegetables, fruit such as cantaloupes, unpasteurized milk, foods made from unpasteurized milk, and processed foods. Pasteurization and sufficient cooking kill Listeria; however, contamination may occur after cooking and before packaging. For example, meat-processing plants producing ready-to-eat foods, such as hot dogs and deli meats, must follow extensive sanitation policies and procedures to prevent Listeria contamination. Listeria monocytogenes is commonly found in soil, stream water, sewage, plants, and food. Listeria are responsible for listeriosis, a rare but potentially lethal food-borne infection. The case fatality rate for those with a severe form of infection may approach 25%. (Salmonella, in comparison, has a mortality rate estimated at less than 1%). Although Listeria monocytogenes has low infectivity, it is hardy and can grow in temperatures from 4 °C (39.2 °F) (the temperature of a refrigerator), to 37 °C (98.6 °F), (the body’s internal temperature). Listeriosis is a serious illness, and the disease may manifest as meningitis, or affect newborns due to its ability to penetrate the endothelial layer of the placenta.
So now we see that this isn’t just a pathogen that was in that family cow as a rare anomaly, it was, and is, a very common environmental contaminant. It also isn’t some extremely rare and horrible infection of cantaloups caused by poor farming practices. It is just one of hundreds of bacteria that share some of our world with us. Mostly infecting folks with compromised immunity in some way. Killing that cow, and the present mass hysteria over salads, say more about our lack of understanding about how common pathogens are in the environment than they do about ‘good farming practices’.
Yes, we need to be ‘clean’ about food growing, shipping, preparation, and consumption; but not paranoid about it.
But, speaking of paranoia, I have to wonder if the present focus on listeria has any connection at all to a marketing effort of sorts for the recently approved treatment:
In August, 2006 the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved LMP-102 (now ListShield) as a food additive to target and kill Listeria monocytogenes. LMP-102 was approved for treating ready-to-eat (RTE) poultry and meat products. In October of that year, following the food additive approval of LMP-102 by Intralytix, the FDA approved a product by EBI using bacteriophages on cheese to kill the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, giving them GRAS status (Generally Recognized As Safe). In July 2007, the same bacteriophages were approved for use on all food products. There is on going research in the field of food safety to see if lytic phage are a viable option to control other food-borne pathogens in various food products.
There has been an odd tendency for a disease, product, or other ‘issue’ to become a media darling shortly after someone has developed a new product. From “low flush toilets” to banning light bulbs, there’s nothing like a government mandate to make you more profitable. So, as a purely speculative point, I’ve got to wonder if all the media coverage of a bit of listeria has anything to do with someone pushing the ‘cure’. Listeria has been around forever, so why now, just a few years after a new treatment hits the market, is it ‘in the news’ so much? Watch this space… If their is a sudden ‘movement’ to mandate the treatment of all produce, just think what that’s worth. No, no proof of anything. Just an interesting little ‘dig here’ on how private enterprise interacts with media and the government.
It’s also somewhat interesting to think that if there are requirements for ‘cleaner water’ on irrigation, that could actually increase the pathogen risks as the bacteriophage load is reduced in the ‘cleaner’ water. Do I have any confidence at all that a government agency can ‘get it right’ with this complicated and subtle a set of interactions? Nope.
There are great potentials here. We can start making designer phages for all sorts of things. But, can we find ways to get the benefits while controlling the urges of greed and avarice? Can we avoid making a ‘superphage’ that kills off some species of beneficial bacteria? One can only hope.
Heck, we might even have a resurgence in folks swimming in rivers. I know I’m going to be letting go of the ‘minor worry’ about swimming in less than chlorinated water that I picked up from living with urban paranoids. (It didn’t stop me from river swimming, just gave me a moment to think “Oh, and it’s got stuff living in it so isn’t clean”… and now that will be “… and has phages in it that might cure some stuff too.” )
In the end, we are tied to our evolutionary context, and that context included contact with dirt, mud, and river waters. We can isolate ourselves from that past to some extent, but perhaps with a cost. While I’m not going to just jump in any old river in the world (there ARE nasties in some of them, from ‘river blindness’ to carnivorous fishes, so you need to know your local waters first) I’m also going to be much more willing to join the locals in a local swimming hole. Oh, and taking that sip of ocean water from time to time.