Hemophobia—-A Modern Superstition

If there is anything worse than policies and practices based on junk science, it is policies and practices based on no science at all. Even epidemiology at least has the pretense of science. But some of the widespread practices one sees today are really nothing more than superstition.

One of these is what I call hemophobia–literally “fear of blood”. This term used to denote an adverse reaction to the site of one’s own blood–typically faintness and/or loss of consciousness explained physiologically as a vasovagal reaction. But today’s hemophobia  is the fear of other people’s blood.

Of course, this all began with the panic over AIDS. People heard that they could contract AIDS from contaminated blood used in transfusions and this apparently evolved into a fear that one could contract it from just about any contact with tainted blood. It is now almost impossible to watch any sporting event without seeing the team doctor or trainer whip out the disposable gloves in order to put a bandaid on a minor cut. Any athlete that bleeds a drop is immediately removed from the game and a spot of dried blood on a uniform requires that the player remove the dangerous garment and don a new one. I don’t know whether the offending piece of clothing is subsequently burned or not, but nothing would surprise me these days.

All of these precautions are patently absurd and suggest a way of thinking about the transmission of disease more characteristic of centuries past rather than the 21st. While it may make sense to be careful not to spill another’s blood on an open sore or wound, this is rarely, if ever, a legitimate fear in the typical situations where we see this practiced today. I doubt that there has ever been a single case of AIDS or any other disease spread in this fashion.

While we’re on the subject of irrationality about disease transmission, what’s the rationale behind the hand sanitizers that seem to be everywhere these days? I can hardly turn around without bumping into one. There seems to be one or more outside every bank of elevators lest one catch or transmit some disease by pressing the elevator buttons. They are on stands outside the supermarket next to the shopping carts so that one can wipe down the handles of the carts and remove potential pathogens. Maybe this is only a mental pathology limited to California. I don’t know whether the businesses and organizations that place these do so because it is mandated by the local government health department or simply because they are catering to the superstitions of an ignorant public.

Some people point out that these precautions are harmless and I wouldn’t argue otherwise, but it betrays and ignorance and herd mentality that I find disturbing in this day and age.

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13 responses to “Hemophobia—-A Modern Superstition

  1. “Some people point out that these precautions are harmless and I wouldn’t argue otherwise, but it betrays and ignorance and herd mentality that I find disturbing in this day and age.” Me, too..

  2. Dittoes. We are breeding a population of germophobii maximus. Scary is de-riguer for a good headline…

  3. Imagine a modern day mother finding her son with a mouth full of mud….from a mud pie.

    Calling 911 would most likely be in the mix versus the garden hose of years past.

  4. Scott Scarborough

    I saw one of those hand sanitizer stations at a gas station. I decided to try it. I pushed on the dispenser with my hand and it was completely empty. Then I realized that hundreds of other people, people who think there hands are dirty with some kind of germs, probably did the same thing. I have never tried to use one since.

  5. Reality Observer

    Unfortunately, this is one more neurosis that didn’t stop at the border to the land of fruits and nuts…

  6. First of all, yes, when the HIV scare began, there were people who died as a result of the use of contaminated blood. Once again I use anecdotal evidence because one of my son’s friends lost his mother to AIDS because she was given a blood transfusion using tainted blood after she gave birth. That blood was infected with HIV. It always made sense to me that people with HIV should not be allowed to donate blood.

    Here in Australia we have the same issues in regard to ridiculous rules about blood, especially relating to sportspeople aka footballers who end up bleeding. The assumption is that they could be infected with HIV. Of course it would be better for the footballers and other sportsmen to be given a simple blood test so that they are excluded as possible HIV carriers.

    With regard to hand sanitizers, it is interesting to note that today when I visited a doctor (he is a Professor) at an eye clinic I observed him using the hand sanitiser. It probably is a good idea because he is handling so many patients with different conditions. He had his own bottle in the office. Hand sanitizers were used in the dining room of a cruise ship and I have seen them elsewhere. Sometimes I use them, but I prefer my own personal bottle.

    I do wonder though about whether or not these things are truly necessary in most circumstances. I do think that the blood rules on the football field are a bit ridiculous.

  7. @Ernest–
    As with so many stupid contemporary memes, they originate in a grain of truth. Yes, you probably can contract certain diseases given the “right’ exposure to blood. Of course, this is extremely rare.

    Ironically, with infection control in healthcare as bad as it is, and with millions of people taking drugs that are likely hurting them, germophobia in everyday life is certainly over-the-top.

    • Michael: I remember you writing on Type 2 diabetes in the past. The other day I researched whether or not I could give blood (I’m type 1). One of the reasons I didn’t think so is I’m not what is termed a “well-controlled” diabetic. Turns out that doesn’t really matter at all. I used beef/pork insulin after 1980 and that means I cannot donate, apparently ever. I was surprised by this—it’s because of BSE and the fear that the insulin was contaminated and I am a carrier or something like that. It was very surprising.

  8. The concept of ‘contagion’ seems to have reverted to the pre-Pasteur days, when magical thinking led to the idea that simple contact (hence the word ‘contagion’) was sufficient to spread certain effects magically – effects such as ‘saintliness’ and ‘nobility’, as well as pestilence and curses.

  9. Although HIV has almost certainly not been spread by casual blood contact (the virus becomes non-infectious quite quickly on drying), other blood-borne diseases exist (Hepatitis B, for example). Has anyone ever studied whether rates of these other diseases dropped with the introduction of blood rules in sports? It was anecdotal that other STD’s dropped with the encouragement of condom use due to HIV and I wondered if there was anything similar for casual blood contact.

  10. Hospitals now use those hand sanitizers everywhere. What I found disturbing about this was the hospitals don’t seem to worry so much about cleanliness in rooms or bathrooms anymore. I suspect it’s because of those hand sanitizers in every room. Nurses and doctors wore gloves during any procedure and then sprayed the sanitizer on their hands when they left the room. Personally, I preferred cleaning up messes to spraying sanitizers on your hands all the time.

  11. Actually, all this hand sanitizer use IS damaging. Their routine use in hospitals (we BRING diseases there) makes sense. If there’s any reason to expect infection – a serious local outbreak of a communicable disease, for instance- go for it. But overuse in “normal” life is counterproductive. Exposure to minor level of disease vectors is normal, and our bodies are built to handle it. It’s like a small “vaccination” every time, otherwise known as an “immune system challenge”.
    http://www.nature.com/nri/journal/v10/n3/full/nri2710.html

    Children raised in ultraclean environments come down with more colds, etc, as adults, and are more prone to allergies.

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