by Chandra Arulpragasam
Italy in 1967 still had a heavy American military presence, dating back to World War II. I had been in Italy for less than a year and did not speak the language well. I must have been about 38-years old, but had a nagging backache, which I attributed to the violent physical sports of my youth. I had tried many cures, including visits to London hospitals; but to no avail.
I had heard of the thermal baths in Ischia (an island near Capri) that were supposed to be good for backaches. I decided to go there, since it involved only a two-and-a- half-hour boat ride from Naples. In Ischia, having booked myself into a small pensione, I bought a one-week pass to the major thermal bath on the island. It was a large complex with a big garden, several pools at varying heat-levels, enclosures for mud baths (the volcanic mud was said to be good for aches) and cubicles for massage. The main clients were elderly Germans, who kept coming to the terme every year at spring-time. I happened to be the only dark-skinned person there!
On my first morning, when I was going to the hot springs, a man in camouflage uniform leapt out of the bushes to salute me: I recoiled in surprise. He seemed to be an ex-military man with a clipped moustache, balding and a bit of a belly; he turned out to be the gardener. At the baths, I swam in the biggest pool and soaked in the thermal springs. I was then offered a soak in the volcanic mud, or just a plain massage. I opted for the latter. The masseur was highly amused at my insisting on a tiny towel to cover my nakedness.
I had been only a few months in Italy: I could understand Italian well but could hardly speak, responding only with a ‘si’’ or ‘no’ to any questions asked of me. The masseur (Gianni) kept on chatting to me in Italian, asking me many personal questions. All his questions were about my physical activities. He first asked me whether I flew planes – and how many planes I had shot down, going rat-a-tat-tat, to imitate a machine gun. When I answered that I had not shot down any planes, he seemed genuinely disappointed! He then asked me how many enemies I had killed in hand-to-hand combat. When I answered in the negative, he seemed even more disappointed. I too was disappointed that I had to answer ‘no’ to all his questions: for he was only trying to make conversation. His next question was whether I was a boxer – like Muhammad Ali. By this time, I realized that I was not living up to his expectations, so I said: “‘Sort of – but that was long ago”: I had boxed a bit in my youth. ‘Giorgio’, he called to the masseur next-door: ‘This guy is a famous boxer!’ Giorgio burst into my booth to admire this famous boxer, while I clutched desperately at my skimpy towel!
Gianni resumed his questioning, asking me whether I was an actor in films. Since I was answering ‘no’ to all his questions, I desperately wanted to say ‘yes’ to something: so I responded weakly, ‘Si’. ‘Stefano’, he shouted to the next cubicle, ‘This guy is a famous actor in films’. I coyly clutched at my tiny towel as Stefano burst into my cubicle. The latter asked: ‘Were you like zero, zero, sette – like 007, like James Bond’? This line of questioning was leading me into greater lies, but I nodded weakly. With a sly wink, he then asked me: ‘So you must have had many women, like 007’? Unable to speak the language and unwilling to disappoint him, I responded with a nonchalant shrug of my shoulders, which he took to mean ‘quite a few’. He called excitedly to Roberto next door, telling him breathlessly that I had slept with many, many women! Roberto asked ‘then you must be a good lover, no?’ I was cornered: with seeming modesty, I answered ‘Si’. They believed what they wanted to believe vicariously of me, what they wanted me vicariously to be: a boxer like Muhamed Ali, a film-star like James Bond, making love to many women, just like James Bond! I was beginning to believe my own yarns myself!
All this made me famous! Everyone treated me with new respect. When I came to the baths next morning, even the old soldier saluted me with new gusto! So for one week at the baths I was a hero, walking on clouds. I was brought back to earth only when I had to return to my cheap pensione!
After I returned to Rome, I often wondered about my stay in Ischia. Why had they asked me only about armed activities and only about my physical prowess? It all made sense only when I learned that there was an American air force base in Naples. They had hardly seen a dark-skinned person in their remote Ischia. They had actually mistaken me for an Afro-American airman from the American base in Naples. I had fitted their imagined stereotype of an Afro-American airman: and I had fuelled their fancy fantasies. I had been their hero – although for one week only!
A Would-be Italian Lover
I met Ruggeiro (Roger) when he parked his caravan (trailer) next to mine at a lake (Lago di Bracciano), about one hour’s drive from Rome. It was a fresh-water lake (reputedly 800 feet deep) formed in the basin of a volcano, long years ago. Ruggeiro was full of fun, seldom serious, with an impish grin on his face and a wild sense of humour: he was known for his racy stories and sense of fun. Ruggiero had a wife, but no children. He must have been about 38-years old (around 1975). He wore a skimpy bathing slip, had sparkling blue eyes which contrasted well with his tanned skin, while a curl on his forehead hid a receding hairline.
We would usually meet at the lake on weekends. What brought us together was that we both had sail-boats. Mine was an all-purpose boat which could also be sailed, while his was a professional sail-boat. Likewise, whereas I could sail only tentatively, he was a serious sailor. This did not deter him from trying his pranks on me. When I would set out hesitantly and with trepidation (I had never taken sailing lessons), he would ride the waves triumphantly, ramming my boat repeatedly and laughing uproariously – only to pass me a bottle of grappa (intoxicating drink from Italy). After I had taken a frightened gulp, he would bump my boat again – to get his bottle back for another drink. He would bump me repeatedly, either to give me the bottle or to take it back. This ‘game’ would go on and on, till we had finished the bottle! Needless to say, when we finally reached the shore, I could hardly get out of my boat and stagger home!
In summer, the Italians would usually take their families to the seaside. One early summer’s day, I asked Ruggeiro whether he would be going to the beach. He responded with a knowing wink that he would be sending his wife to the beach with her sister and mother. I asked him whether he would be going too. ‘No, no’, he replied with a sly grin, ‘I will be staying in Rome: I will wait for the girls from Europe to come flocking for Italian lovers: they will leave their knickers behind in the Alps’, rubbing his palms together with glee! I noted that he had removed his wedding ring in anticipation; but its removal had left a thin, white, exposed band on his otherwise tanned skin. When asked whether this would not give him away, he replied with a wink and grin: ‘There’s nothing that a bit of shoe polish cannot accomplish!’
Babes in the Wood
At a long weekend around 1980, the few Sri Lankan families in Rome decided to have a picnic. We decided to go to the Pineta d’Ostia with its forest of pine trees, covering many square miles before reaching the sea in Ostia. It was a lonely spot in those days: my kids and I used to pack our bikes in our old station wagon and go to these woods to cycle for miles in these beautiful pine forests, which had good tarred roads, despite its loneliness. We had chosen an idyllic spot for our picnic, a clearing in the woods surrounded by trees and greenery. Our picnic lunch was a relaxed affair, lasting the whole morning and extending well into the afternoon. Much good food was eaten and much wine drunk.
The kids were playing in the clearing near us. But when we were clearing up to leave, we realized with consternation that two of our children had wandered off: Anjali, our daughter (aged five years) and a friend’s child, Gitanjali (Jayasundera) aged six. Searching in the vicinity with no results, we sent out systematic search-parties – but with no success. Becoming really worried, we thought of going to the police; but dismissed the idea because there was no police station close by. Hence, we merely intensified our search, sending out search parties in all directions.
Fortunately for us, the two children had been picked up by a police car that was cruising by in these woods. They were taken to the nearest police station, where they were questioned by the kind and concerned police men. They enquired where the children’s parents were. The children, thinking that this was all a joke made up a story that they did not know our whereabouts. The police then asked them how long they had been lost. The children fantasized that they had been roaming the forests for three whole days. The policemen asked them how they had survived for so long – to which the kids replied that they had survived by eating grass! This was too much for the policemen! They put the children in the squad car and went around the forests searching for their parents. Luckily they found us – though in deep distress. They gave us a good scolding for our carelessness, but smilingly admonished us not to send out our children to eat grass!
The first wave of migrants from Sri Lanka comprised professionals (doctors and engineers) who migrated to English-speaking countries where their (English) professional skills were recognized and valued. The second wave consisted of unemployed labour going into the non-English speaking countries – Italy, France and Germany – for manual or semi-skilled jobs, where language skills did not matter much. Usually the latter type of migration is spear-headed by the adventurers, often the ‘ne’er do wells’ who have nothing to lose; to the contrary, those with secure jobs would be afraid of undertaking such a risk at all!
Our story is about an adventurer who took the risk of migrating to Italy in the early days. He obtained a job as cook and major-domo to a rich bachelor. He had never cooked in his life. In those days (1975), Sri Lankan men never cooked at all: he was able to bungle through with the help of his indulgent employer. A month passed by – and he was still holding his job. He was keen to boast to the folks at home how well he had done in Italy. So he told friend to take a photograph. But before the photo, he arranged the pose and moved the furniture accordingly! He lay on his employer’s bed; he pulled the TV behind the bed, so that it would show in the photo. No one in his village owned a TV in those days. He pulled the two phones in the house beside his bed. Dressed in his employer’s best shirt, suit and shoes, and seeming to give important instructions over the phone, a cigarette dangling from his lips, he asked his friend to take the photograph. Needless to say, when the photo made the rounds in the village, not only was his reputation redeemed, but all the young men were jumping up and down to go to Italy!
Finally, a sad story comes to mind. By this time (around 1985), immigration to Italy had increased to a flood. Middlemen and brokers had entered the fray, promising everything from a passage to Italy to a forged visa, in return for an enormous fee. Desperately poor rural families mortgaged or sold their homes in order to finance their passage to Italy. This story is about one set of migrants who were able to find the large sums of money demanded by their agent. They were told to find their way to Hambantota where they were clandestinely loaded into a boat at night. They sailed for many days from Lanka’s shores, crossing many fishing vessels and ocean liners on their way, while some of the passengers were violently seasick.
After sailing for about a week, they at last sighted land-lights in the distance; they were told that they had reached Italy. They would land secretly at night on a thinly wooded shore; they were told to lie low for the night and to work their way to the nearest town in the morning. When morning came, they crept into the closest town in twos and threes, as instructed…… Only to find that they had landed in Hambantota – the very town from which they had departed! They had literally been taken for a ride! To add to their dismay, they had to face the shame of their village, the blame of their families and the demands of their creditors!
The ‘Cheena Abhagya’ on the rise
There is a big China Hurry in the government that seems much higher than any hurry about controlling the Covid pandemic.
The debate of the Colombo Port City Commission was scheduled for May 5, without even receiving the Supreme Court decision on the many petitions filed before it. This is a complete and shameless shift from the very process of parliamentary debate, the stuff of democracy.
A debate in parliament is based on the material — the facts, plans, decisions, proposals etc – placed before the members. This government with its Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour has no interest in the democratic process. They decide on a date for a debate on what is the most important piece of legislation today, with the MPs not given even an hour to know and study the decision of the Supreme Court on the subject. In fact, it is also a huge insult to the Supreme Court and the judicial process, too.
This decision and its refusal to agree to the Opposition calls for more days for this debate, showed how the government is ready, and determined, to use its two-thirds majority, post 20A, to have no respect for the democratic process.
Although this shameful move by the government failed, due to the Supreme Court decision not reaching the Speaker by that time, the mockery of democracy continues, with the next date for the debate on the Port City subject being fixed for May 18, again with no opportunity for all MPs to read and study the court decision/s on so many matters raised by the petitioners, some of whom were members of parliament too.
This is the China Hurry – Cheena Hadissiya – being displayed, just the initial moves to use the Sinopharm Covid Vaccine on the people of this country, while it has not been approved by the WHO and the responsible Health and Medical officials in this country.
This is the ‘Cheenabhagya’ doing much more than the Saubhagya Dekma of Gotabhaya Power. A rising ‘Abhagya’ or misery to the people.
This Cheenabhagya is certainly impacting others in the government, such as Minister Gamini Lokuge, who decided to arbitrarily lift the lockdown and travel restrictions in Piliyandala. There will be much more Cheena benefits and power in the coming weeks, as the country keeps reeling with the spread of the latest variant of Covid-19.
The Cabinet move to import gyms to strengthen the muscles of the people is certainly a move to reduce the thinking power of the people. Muscle Power is the stuff of rulers who have no faith in the Brain Power of people, who would dare to question the decisions taken by rulers. The use of this Brain Power is the very substance of the Buddhist thinking that has been the core value of Sri Lanka through the centuries. This is the substance of the Buddha Dharmaya as against the Buddha-agama that has distorted Buddhist teachings. Are the plans to build a Sri Lankan temple, in the premises of the ancient and first Buddhist White Horse Temple in China, a show of the Cheena Dekma – or Chinese Vision – that holds sway among those attached to what will soon be the Cheena Rajavasala in Hambantota. Maybe, we will soon change the name of Hambantota to a Maha Cheenatota, and wipe off the arrival of Hamban people to this country.
Rishad Bathiuddin remains in the spotlight today. His moves with different governments, from the Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Yahapalana have been the cause of much criticism and court orders such as replanting torn down jungles. He is now detained as a terror suspect, and the Cheena Balaya does not want him to attend parliament. Sarath Weerasekera, Minister of Public Security, does not want him in the House, as he will violate the legal process that holds him in custody, as he would most likely reveal the secrets of terrorism inquiries supposedly now underway, and may even help other un-arrested terror suspects to flee the country. This is against the official thinking of the Attorney General, who certainly knows more about law, than a retired armed services officer.
The innocence of an unconvicted person until conviction by a court, is part of our democratic and judicial processes. Weerasekera is wholly pleased to have within the government ranks, in parliament, a person convicted by the courts for the crime of murder in the Ratnapura district, Premalal Jayasekera. Is this power prospect for future murderers, convicted by a court of law? This Cheena Havula also had in its ranks Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan – Pillayan, while he was held in custody for the murder of a former MP in a Batticaloa church, many years ago. Well, well – he has since been acquitted and released by the Batticaloa High Court
It is not our delight that Rishard Bathiuddin is the focus of a call for democracy within parliament. We are aware of how his party, and the Muslim Congress too, gave support to pass the 20A, and its huge blow to democracy. But the rights of a citizen and an elected MP, have to be protected, whatever the politics and the other stuff of a person may be. To give him the right to attend and speak in parliament is a core value of the democratic process. This cannot be torn away under the Cheena thinking, which is fast taking us to the manipulations of the Chinese Communist Party, in its governance of China.
We are in the throes of a pandemic that is certainly sweeping the country. The need is to guide and handle the fight against it, and save the people of the horror we see just across the Palk Strait. Narendra Modi, who was honoured by his BJP for the so-called success in defeating Covid-19, is now facing humiliating defeats, electorally, socially and globally too. Our fight against this pandemic must be through the values of the democratic process. The values we have seen till 1977, after independence, which have been distorted and destroyed by JRJ and down to the Cheenabhagya of Gotabhaya.
The fight against Covid-19 must be a fight to restore Democracy too, in every form of the people’s rights and freedoms.
Let’s move to Janatha Bhagya, away from the rising Cheena Abhagya of today!
From Cylinder to Liquid Oxygen Plant
Story of Oxygen supply at National Hospital –
The National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL) is the largest and best equipped Teaching Hospital in the country with a bed strength of nearly 4,000. It has 26 operating theatres, 28 Intensive Care Units (ICU) and several institutes including one for Cardiology housed in a large number of buildings. It is located on a 32-acre land standing in the middle of Colombo.
NHSL is circled by a ring of busy public roads while some roads are running through the premises. Hospital premises and surrounding roads are always filled with hurriedly pacing medical staff, siren blaring ambulances, patient-carrying trolleys, distressed relatives and tired visitors. One would not miss the sight of a cylinders loaded truck crawling across in this melee and wonder why the truck. They ensure continuous and uninterrupted supply of most essential medical oxygen for the patients treated in ICUs and those undergoing surgery in operating theatres.
A few years ago, a visitor would not have missed the outside walls of these operating theatres and ICUs each of which decorated with 6-7 hanging jumbo oxygen cylinders. When I made the morning strolls down the hospital corridors my eyes always caught the sight of these cylinders. Oxygen is taken through a copper tubing system fixed to these cylinders to the respective destinations. i.e. Oxygen outlet in the bedside of patients treated in ICUs and in operating theatres. Hospital had a sufficient number of cylinders filled with oxygen. Employees efficiently replaced empty cylinders with new ones.
Every day employees collected empty cylinders, loaded them on a truck and transported to the Oxygen Company in Mattakkuliya for refilling. On certain days when the oxygen consumption was high, this operation has to be doubled. Hospital had its own truck and a group of specially trained skilled employees assigned for the task. Loading and unloading of these jumbo cylinders was a specialised job.
I noticed this operation during my afternoon inspection tour. In fact, the noise made in loading unloading as well as dismounting and mounting cylinders on the walls and the sight itself, to say the least, was a nuisance. Once the truck returned, the refilled cylinders were immediately distributed among the theatres and ICUs. Needless to say this was a hectic task considering the large number, and the spread of theatres and ICUs in the hospital.
There were tensed situations when the truck did not return on time due to a break down, a traffic congestion or an accident on the way. Thought of the delay of the truck with refilled oxygen cylinders gave me many sleepless nights. I was waiting to welcome the irritating noise made when cylinders fell on one another during unloading. While others were cursing, I got a sense of relief as it was an indication that the oxygen truck has arrived. My official residence was in very close proximity to the Merchants Ward where many cylinders were unloaded. No sooner had I heard the clattering sound than I ran to the window to witness the unloading.
As the Director of the country’s largest hospital, I was responsible for the overall smooth functioning of the hospital itself and that of men, material and machinery. And among all, ensuring the continuous and uninterrupted supply of oxygen for patients who were critically ill and those undergoing surgery was foremost.
Majority staff including doctors and nurses did not know the complexity behind the smooth flow of oxygen through the outlet whenever they open the valve to administer oxygen to a patient. Only a handful of people knew the complexity of the ‘oxygen supply operation’ in the hospital. It was a nightmare for me personally and all my predecessors.
While worrying over this cumbersome complex manual operation, I was wondering how fitting this type of oxygen supply for a Teaching Hospital of the magnitude of the National Hospital. My mind was busy in exploring and weighing alternatives.
While listening to the clattering of cylinders and watching the swift movements of workers’ hands in the unloading operation in the middle of the night, with a cup of steaming coffee in my hand, a thought struck my mind. I heard my own voice shouting over the clattering sound of falling cylinders; Hey! Man, be practical, install a Liquid Oxygen Plant in the hospital premises itself.
Early next morning ignoring the supervision tour, I was busy preparing a comprehensive proposal to the Ministry of Health with a clear justification of the investment. Having submitted the proposal followed by a few telephone calls the Ministry responded by approving the proposal.
The proposal was designed to have a Liquid Oxygen Plant with the highest capacity for the hospital and another with less capacity dedicated for the Institute of Cardiology located a little away from the main hospital premises across the street.
A few moons later, a Liquid Oxygen Plant near Ward 13 and a separate smaller plant on the premises of Institute of Cardiology rose to the sky. The copper pipelines were laid connecting all the operating theatres, intensive care units and high dependency units which required continuous uninterrupted supply of oxygen. The project was completed within a matter of a few months providing a great sense of relief to me.
The company which installed the two oxygen tanks is attending to maintenance and repairs. The company regularly monitors the level of consumption and replenishes the tanks. The hospital staff need not intervene.
Needless to mention the relief it brought to me. It was in the year 2006 during which the Hospital installed the two oxygen plants. Since then we did not have to wait for the truck or bother about cylinders. There has not been any loading unloading or clattering of cylinders. I wanted to ensure that my successors would have a permanent reliable source of Oxygen supply for our patients and avoid sleepless nights unlike me and my predecessors.
After the COVID-19 pandemic Oxygen has become the mostly used word among the healthcare workers. After retirement today, I reminisce my time as the Director of NHSL and recall how the disturbed night dawned upon me the idea to install a Liquid Oxygen Plant to ensure the continuous supply of Oxygen to patients gasping for oxygen.
Our neighbouring India is losing thousands of young lives a day due to unavailability of Oxygen. I am happy about the forethought I had 15 years ago long before the term ‘COVID-19 Pandemic’ entered our vocabulary.
Boosting immune system to fight Covid-19: Is it possible?
By Saman Gunatilake
Emeritus Professor of Medicine
University of Sri Jayewardenepura
Immune boosting is a trending topic these days with the COVID-19 pandemic. The concept of “immune boosting” is scientifically misleading and often used to market unproven products and therapies. There is no current evidence that any product or practice will contribute to enhanced “immune boosting” protection against COVID-19. This lack of evidence has not stopped wellness gurus with vested interests, and commercial entities from propagating notions of boosting immunity. Internet and popular press are flooded with messages of this nature resulting in an abundance of misinformation circulating online. The public is increasingly going online for health information and questions persist around the kinds of inaccurate information the public is absorbing and the impacts it may be having on health-related decisions and actions.
What are Immunity Boosters?
Immunity boosters are products which claim to be able to support your immune system so you aren’t as likely to get sick. Additionally, if you do get sick, taking the supplements will make your illness pass faster. There is no scientific and clinical evidence in humans to support claims of ‘immunity boosting’ foods and other products which supposedly enhance immunity. The body has its own immune system which fights against viral and bacterial invaders. With a normal immune system, we are capable of protecting ourselves against most infections but with certain situations the infection manages to overcome our immune system and cause serious disease and even death. The current Covid 19 pandemic is such a situation. We are in the grip of a spike in infection with over 1000 cases per day seen during the last few days. Total deaths from the pandemic in our country is nearing 700 and the total cases up to now amounts to around 111,800.
With no scientifically established cure for Covid-19 yet and the available recommended treatments limited to severe cases and being not so effective, recovery in most cases has largely been reliant on the human body’s natural defence, the immune system. Fighting the infection by boosting our immune systems had been the buzzword since the beginning of the pandemic. This has led to many misconceptions, misinforming and misleading the public. Improving the diet, taking vitamins and herbal products, lifestyle changes are proposed as ways of doing this. As a result, the market has been flooded with an array of products that claim to boost one’s immunity.
One of the common misconceptions is that high doses vitamin supplements and other minerals and nutrients boost one’s immunity. Ayurvedic concoctions, fruit juices, vitamin pills, zinc tablets have flooded the market with an array of products that claim to boost one’s immunity. Promoters of these products indicate that the body’s natural defences can be strengthened or enhanced by the consumption of certain foods, herbal products or the use of specific products.
Is there robust scientific evidence to support these claims for immune system boosting? The answer is no. Immunology experts believe that there is no way for healthy adults to improve their immunity through foods or other products. The immune system is very complex and these claims about boosting immunity are irrational and unscientific.
The Immune System
The immune system is activated by things that enter the body that the body doesn’t recognise as its own such as bacteria, viruses or even particles that cause allergy, like food, drugs and pollen. Most pathogens have a surface protein on them that the immune system recognizes as foreign. These are called antigens. Then the immune system sets in motion a complex process that fights the invader – this is the immune response.
There are two kinds of immune responses in the human body. The innate immune response is the first to kick in and is common among all animals. It is non-specific and immune cells mount an immediate attack on antigens. The response is subsequently replaced by the adaptive immune response, which tailors defences based on the kind of pathogen that is being encountered. The innate immune response consists of white blood cells like neutrophils, macrophages, and monocytes, while the adaptive response involves Lymphocytes -T cells and B cells, as well as antibodies produced by these cells as a specific response to the invader’s antigens. Stimulated immune systems release chemical proteins known as pro-inflammatory cytokines in large numbers, which can cause soreness and pain. So boosting immunity may lead to unwanted inflammations causing swelling, redness and pain locally and fever and other organ damage.
The Internet searchers will find that the myth of “boosting immunity” is extremely pervasive. Of the approaches that claimed to boost immunity, the top ones were diet, fruit, vitamins, antioxidants, probiotics, minerals. Interestingly, vaccines, the only proven method that enhances our immune response to an infection is ranked very low. One of the biggest misconceptions is that consuming more vitamins than required helps the immune system. It has been proven, time and again, that mega-doses of Vitamin C or of any kind of vitamin are not effective on the body at all. Another misconception is that zinc tablets can play a role in mitigating Covid-19. However, this isn’t backed by evidence either.
Zinc is not an immunity booster. It is an essential mineral for the body which is a ‘cofactor’ for a large number of proteins and enzymes. A cofactor is a non-protein chemical compound or metallic ion that is required for an enzyme’s activity as a catalyst. Like zinc, vitamin C is also a cofactor, and is important for the body to function. So, if you have a deficiency of these essential micronutrients, you will face a problem. But, if a person does not have any such deficiency, an excess amount of these taken does not improve one’s chances of fighting off a virus. Vitamin C and Zinc deficiencies are very rare unless someone is starving or following an extreme diet depleted of nutrients. Iron and Iodine deficiencies are seen in communities and more than immune deficiency they cause other problems.
An extremely active immune system, can also be problematic. In severe Covid-19 cases, the body launches an aggressive immune response resulting in the release of a large amount of pro-inflammatory proteins. This is known as a cytokine storm and is one of the common causes of death in Covid-19 patients. A cytokine storm occurs when the body’s immune system goes into an overdrive, killing healthy cells and causing organ failures. Several research studies suggest that the cytokine storm causes lung injury and multi-organ failure. So, if this is the case boosting the immune system in a Covid patient is not a wise thing to do.
Market interests add to the myth
The truth is natural immunity in normal people cannot be improved. There are immunocompromised individuals with a poor immunity who are susceptible to infections due to certain illnesses, and how can they stay safe from this highly infectious virus that spreads rapidly? The most effective way is by keeping our communities safe.
We can do this by attending to the public hygiene of the population exposed to the infection. Providing safe drinking water, providing clean air, providing adequate nutrition — are ways of keeping the people healthy and strong to fight any infections. There are parts of our country fortunately not as bad in India, without access to these basic health requirements. Achieving social distancing in these communities that live in overcrowded households is impossible.
This background, and a new infection with no treatment, led to various interested parties with good and bad intentions in promoting the myth of immune boosting. They have become self-proclaimed experts exploiting this crisis, putting forth all kinds of miraculous non allopathic substitutions. As allopathic medications to be approved, a rigorous procedure has to be observed, they resorted to the easier approach of promoting quick remedies in traditional and herbal products. Unproven ‘natural’ remedies came to the fore in our country in this background where people felt helpless. The vaccine, the only proven way of boosting the immunity of an individual and the population against a specific disease was not available around this time.
There are added dangers in such situations. There may be a lot of drug-drug interactions. If people are consuming allopathic medicines, and then also start consuming these medicinal herbs, the components of the herb will interact with the drug resulting in unknown complications. These unapproved medications can have toxic effects on your kidney, liver and other organs.
Even during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 companies jumped in on the opportunity to hail themselves as immunity boosting drug producers. However, no products were ever proven to be effective in improving immune responses.
Maintaining a normal immune system
A poor immune system is seen in people with certain ailments. Some are born with defects in their immune system and they are known as immunodeficiencies. People with chronic illnesses like diabetes and auto immune disorders are also vulnerable to catch illnesses easily as their immune systems are weak. People on immunosuppressant medications like steroids and cancer drugs also have a weakened immune system and easily catch infections and develop serious complications easily.
Lifestyle is key for keeping your immune system normal and ready to act with an adequate response when necessary. For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle, exercise and enhanced immune function. Researchers are exploring the effects of diet, exercise and stress on the immune response. There are indeed processes that do affect our immune cells and improve their responses. The best one of them, perhaps, is exercise. Many studies have shown that moderate exercise of less than 60 minutes can improve the circulation of anti-inflammatory cytokines, neutrophils, natural killer cells, T cells and B cells. This can work effectively — not for combating diseases at a specific point in time, but to combat stress hormones in general, which can suppress immune cell function. Extremely high intensity exercise leads to a short duration of compromised immunity, increasing risk for disease in this time period. This is one of the reasons marathon runners or professional sports persons tend to catch a fever or cold in the days following a sporting event. Regular exercise is known to improve cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight. Therefore, adopting general healthy-living strategies make sense since they are likely to have other proven health benefits. But whether they help to boost the immune system is a controversial issue with no proven answers.
The immune system can also be compromised by many lifestyle habits such as smoking, which is known to affect T and B cells, among a host of other parameters. Diseases like diabetes by themselves result in compromised immune systems. This is why diabetic patients are particularly susceptible to infections. Obesity is another condition with a weak immune system as it predisposes to the development of other illnesses like diabetes and hypertension. There appears to be a connection between poor nutrition and immunity and this is a problem especially in the elderly. Poor nutrition can lead to micronutrient malnutrition, in which a person becomes deficient in some essential vitamins and trace minerals. Deficiency of these can result in a poor immune response to infections. Older people tend to eat less and often have less variety in their food. In them dietary supplements may have some beneficial effects and they should discuss this with their doctors. Taking mega doses of vitamins do not help and can even be harmful.
Every part of your body, including your immune system that fights against infections function better when protected from unwanted damage and bolstered by healthy-living styles. These are – not smoking, taking a diet high in fruit and fibre, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding alcohol or consuming in moderation, getting adequate sleep, washing hands regularly, developing good food habits, minimizing stress.
However, there currently exists no evidence of any consumable foods or products being able to induce an improvement in immune function. Although some preparations have been found to alter some components of the immune system, so far there is no evidence that they actually boost your immunity to the point where you are protected against infection. The only scientifically proven way to boost immunity, the immune system, and an immune response is through vaccinations. Vaccines prime your immune system to fight off infections before they take hold in your body.
So, where do we stand today? Vaccines to boost our immunity against Covid, prevention of spread and catching infection by proper wearing of masks, washing hands and maintaining social distance. These are the scientifically proven methods and others appear to be market-driven myths.
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