Werl, Atchully

Major international research efforts are being made to fight this trend – including an initiative at London’s Francis Crick Institute, where two world experts, James Lee and Carola Vinuesa, have set up separate research groups to help pinpoint the precise causes of autoimmune disease, as these conditions are known.

“Numbers of autoimmune cases began to increase about 40 years ago in the west,” Lee told the Observer. “However, we are now seeing some emerge in countries that never had such diseases before.


In the UK alone, at least 4 million people have developed such conditions, with some individuals suffering more than one. Internationally, it is now estimated that cases of autoimmune diseases are rising by between 3% and 9% a year. Most scientists believe environmental factors play a key role in this rise.

“Human genetics hasn’t altered over the past few decades,” said Lee, who was previously based at Cambridge University. “So something must be changing in the outside world in a way that is increasing our predisposition to autoimmune disease.”

Well, maybe.

This idea was backed by Vinuesa, who was previously based at the Australian National University. She pointed to changes in diet that were occurring as more and more countries adopted western-style diets and people bought more fast food.

“Fast-food diets lack certain important ingredients, such as fibre, and evidence suggests this alteration affects a person’s microbiome – the collection of micro-organisms that we have in our gut and which play a key role in controlling various bodily functions,” Vinuesa said.

“These changes in our microbiomes are then triggering autoimmune diseases, of which more than 100 types have now been discovered.”

Hmm. Given that I’m not the P³ I’ll not declare that I’ve got the answer. Instead I’ll just postulate. Human genetics have changed over this time. Or, rather, since the generation or two before that.

In the 1920s a diagnosis of diabetes was a 6 month death sentence. Crohn’s and all the gut ones wouldn’t have increased life of reproductive success chances.

“If you don’t have a certain genetic susceptibility, you won’t necessarily get an autoimmune disease, no matter how many Big Macs you eat,” said Vinuesa.

The susceptibilities are indeed genetically linked and therefore inheritance plays a role. But then so also does the arising, de novo, of the gene combinations that predispose to them.

So, to use another example, 100 years ago – and all time previous to that – babies with lactose intolerance died. So, lactose intolerance was something that only arose de novo in each generation, it wasn’t inherited – or those with it didn’t survive to pass it on, while the gene combinations that cause it might pop up in a sexual mixing of DNA perhaps. Now babies with lactose intolerance do survive and so we have a rise in such intolerance in the population as a whole. We’ve both the directly inherited and also the arising de novo types.

Thus my theory about these autoimmune diseases. They’re increasing because in the past those with them were dead and not reproducing. So, we only got the incidence of those few new cases, not directly inherited, who did survive. Now we’ve got those new cases, as always, plus those directly inherited.

I’d not hold to this very strongly as a complete solution. As with much of economics I’d say that there are likely many things going on. But I would strongly argue that this is some of what’s going on. Some portion – with a heavy emphasis upon “some” – of the rise in autoimmune diseases, as with many others, is a result of the previous generation of those having them not being dead.

21 thoughts on “Werl, Atchully”

  1. Rather than more fast-food, I would have thought reduced exposure to micro-organisms (hygiene hypothesis) along with increased use of antibiotics is a more plausible explanation. Plus anyone who thinks the British diet 40 years ago was high in fibre doesn’t realise that wholemeal bread was crank food in the early eighties.

  2. Yes but also what previous generation and what diet? When we were looking at the road to wigan pier standard 1930s diet – it would shock modern diet sensitivities. Ok calories were all used up down tuh pit but it was basically White bread, butter,marg, dripping, jam, sugar, meat, milk with some onions and carrots and peas chucked in which would have been boiled to buggery.

  3. A lot of genetic diseases are recessive, i.e. if you have one “working” copy of a gene and one “dud” (heterozygous in genetics) then you’re fine, but two parents with that setup will have a 1 in 4 chance of producing offspring with two copies of the “dud” gene and thus the disease. That’s the over-simplified version for a single-locus issue: most things are a lot more complex with genes that turn other genes on/off, etc. etc., but it serves well as an example.

    So these do not need to arise de novo in each generation to appear in the population, but they will be suppressed slightly if the disease leads to death before being able to have children, or to the affected individual being unwanted as a mate (due to reduced earning ability, etc.) The strength of the suppression effect is proportional to the likeliness of two heterozygous “carriers” producing offspring, thus low when the prevalence is low, but higher as it gets higher. Remove the suppressive effect by medical intervention, welfare and an abundance of jobs that do not require physical strength and all this will change in a generation or two.

  4. Access to health facilities is a big factor.

    What you may have classed as “a touch of the mange” in the 1930s and would have cost five bob to see a doctor about, today leads to a full MRI scan. Albeit 2 years after it is first reported to the GP.

  5. It certainly seems plausible to me. The more interesting thing is the “cart & horse” idea… is it the genes or the Big Macs (et al) that are more responsible for the higher disease prevalance? Because I’d suggest that there are more of both these days than there were back in t’ day.

  6. My pet theory is akin to cane toads in Australia. If you live in one place, your body (DNA, microbiome, mitochondria, whatever) is adapted for the pathogens in that particular environment; but 50+ years of jet travel means that everyone is exposed to everything these days. Bacteria / virii / fungi in one country don’t play well with populations from another. Obviously it hits the West first because we travelled first; but as the developing world gets richer, it starts to hit them too.

    We’d expect the rich in Britain to suffer less, because they’ve been travelling around the world since the days of the Empire. Conversely, in the 3rd world, we’d expect the new middle classes to suffer the most.

  7. Everybody has got to die from something.

    Time was, most people died from giving birth, childhood diseases, falling down in t’pit, malnutrition, or the next door military genius bent on world domination.

    The germ theory of disease, with hygiene, water chlorination, antibiotics, Elfin Safety at work, and Nukes, have rather put an end to all those.

    So we all now die of something else. Diseases of old age. Not something that troubled most people in ‘the good old days’.

    People are now dying of auto-immune diseases because they aren’t being slaughtered by cannon-fire.

    But a good dose of Net Zero will change all that. Bring back classic diseases like typhoid, that’s what I say!

  8. There is another factor…

    In the past 40 or so years our diagnostic capabilities have drastically improved, and quite a lot of “familial diseases” that are in and of themselves not immediately debilitating or life-threatening have been proven to have a form of autoimmunity as the root cause.
    That means the list of autoimmune afflictions has grown quite expansive over the last 40 years or so.

    There’s many factors involved, but “failure to procreate” isn’t one of them, except for the extreme forms.
    The mild ones are “an Embuggerance”, but tend to build up their damage over time. Well into the age range where “having kids” is something your kids are having a shot at.
    So there has always been very little filtering/selection going on there over the ages.

  9. ‘ “Numbers of autoimmune cases began to increase about 40 years ago in the west,” Lee told the Observer. “However, we are now seeing some emerge in countries that never had such diseases before.’

    Nothing to do with routine (in places mandated) vaccinating the young (mostly unnecessarily): developing Countries catching up as they too get routine vaccination programmes for the young?

    Vaccination sensitises the immune system making it more agressive. Adjuvants in vaccines stimulate and amplify the immune response.

    Two points:

    1) I am not against vaccinations.
    2) The ‘proof’ that vaccination for childhood diseases is the key reason these have become much reduced in Countries of the West, overlooks confounding factors.

    Example: Polio virus takes up residence in the gut where it is harmless. It only becomes a problem if it escapes into the blood stream and invades muscle tissue where it can cause poliomyelitis rarely fatal or with long lasting injury.

    Polio virus is transmitted by fæcal contamination.

    Question: which factor is key in reducing infection from pathogens spread in the fæces, better hygiene/sanitation or vaccination?

    Is hygiene/sanitation better in Western Countries than undeveloped Countries and does this disparity explain difference in Polio infections rather than disparity in numbers vaccinated?

    Last year, an outbreak of Polio occurred immediately following a local Polio vaccination campaign for children in a developing Country. Vaccination was by the oral route – live vaccine was used.

    Is vaccination as important as claimed, or should the money be spent on better sanitation and encouraging personal hygiene?

    Vaccination makes a lot of money for the Pharmaceutical industry and doctors. Fill in the blanks.

  10. Bloke in the Fourth Reich

    Human genetics have most definitely not changed in a couple of generations. In fact, many of our medical problems and physical limitations today can be ascribed to the fact that human genetics has barely changed over hundreds to thousands of generations. The population genetics might have (globally, have certainly done so) changed but you could take any modern individual, dump them back 10,000 years, and they would be genetically unremarkable.

    The reasons for the observation of increased AI disease are as the comments above. Plus reclassification (MS has been known for centuries but was not always known to be an AI disease).

    Some environmental factors are definitely changing and some may be causative (or protective!). There are so many candidates we need more than this lazy correlation=causation fallacy on “western diet”.

  11. One good reason to suggest that the cause is environmental, and specifically food, is that it might lead to a healthy flow of research grants. So it’s interesting that they’ve missed the trick of claiming that it’s all to do with Global Warming. Next year, maybe?

  12. When did autoimmune become a word? I suspect that 100 years ago it wasn’t.
    Name a thing and you begin to find it.

  13. The comments here point out that many aspects of life have changed contemperaneously. Diet, pollution, lack of pollution, hygiene, availability of diagnosis and vaccination to name a few. How scientific is it to jump straight to your particular diet obsession for blame?

    (Of course one might consider that covid mrna vaccines are claimed to produce cases of autoimmune disease and it would be worth looking for them rather than keep up the blanket denial of harm?)

  14. Bloke in the Fourth Reich

    Rhoda, the research funding committee has taken several years to consider your application, and notes that the unvaccinated control group is now too small for a valid comparison to be made. Plus, it is longstanding knowledge that autoimmune diseases are caused by climate change, and that reports of humans growing second heads are nothing new and totally not associated with covid vaccination. Regrettably, therefore, the grant is denied.

  15. Similarly, my speculation as to why cystic fibrosis is dying out. CF is a regressive trait that only expresses when both parents pass on the gene. People are breeding further outwith their own genetics, so breeding CF into extinction.

  16. Bloke in the Fourth Reich

    The only way to breed CF into extinction would be for carriers to actively pair up and eliminate alleles by having or aborting affected kids. Not so doing will increase the frequency of CF-causing alleles.

  17. Still don’t understand why the blokes who get wood for blokes would still be around.
    And I’m convinced that the % is growing despite the efforts of Bob Mugabe and places that go further and nominally make it a capital offence.
    It’s not even as if it’s like a condition that gets you after your child making years, it’s a condition that means you don’t have any in the first place.

  18. Bongo: One theory is that gayness is a bit like CF where if you get a double dose in your DNA it comes out. However the genetic mix that may promote gayness is not just one, but probably many. Given that, blokes who are not gay but have some of the genetic predisposition in some of the controlling genes may be fitter in some other respect so they breed and the genes carry on.
    Plenty of gay guys also have kids – by thinking of England at the appropriate point?

  19. @TG Or because of social norms/obligation etc… And there’s always Beer Goggles.. And a Hole is a Hole, and…
    For my father it seems to have been a lot of that, and he didn’t come out ( and dump mum and us, but that’s another story…) until I was 15. Lots of Domestic Trouble before that, but… He did sire three sons, all of us definitely in the Boob Fanboi Club.

    So no, Bongo.. Homosexuality doesn’t exclude you from having kids.
    It’s one of the things the Alphabet Soupers are right about for a change: It’s a Spectrum. Because there are many factors involved and ymmv on how they express, and then how the individual deals with it v/s whatever society thinks of the phenomenon.

    And as complicated ( and boy…is it…) as the root cause for homosexuality is, it is in and of itself a rare but regular occurrence in both birds and mammals, which indicates whatever causes it has deep roots.

    Another typical thing is that it occurs in a higher frequency in all social species, and there is invariably tied to hierachy/dominance behaviour. Being so …universal… it must give an advantage somewhere. It definitely plays a part in social cohesion in all primates, including us.

    Which may well be one of the root causes for “homophobia” in humans, because in primates ( including us..) mating is inextricably tied to a dominance structure.
    Which means that a well-meant and innocent amorous pass by a homosexual gets translated as an attempt at agressive dominance by the heterosexual monkey brain we all still have.
    The fact that all the girls tend to flock to the “safe” male doesn’t help as well…
    For all practical purposes a gay with a coterie of women is exactly what we recognise as a Boss Monkey ( and something we secretly all wanted as young males..) , and the fact that his behaviour towards us males is extremely dominant makes him a dangerous Boss Monkey without the poor gay even trying hard, or generally looking the part..

    Talk about crossed signals..
    And yes, modern society and mores and all.. Try to tell that to the part inside of us that never left the jungle..

  20. @Grikath

    I agree with all you say. A great movie on the homosexual (bisexual?) having kids is the Wedding Banquet.


    There is a strand of literature that said female maternal relatives of homosexuals have higher fecundity than female maternal relatives of heterosexuals.


    But subsequent studies cast doubt on it


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