Aside from catching chicken pox as a kid, nobody would ever go out of their way to get sick. Why would they? The best you can hope for is a few days off from work, and really, playing hooky isn’t as fun since Bob Barker stopped hosting The Price Is Right.
However, there are a number of diseases, infections, viruses, and medical conditions that come with some surprising — if occasionally dubious — side benefits.
Sickle-cell disease protects you from malaria
Sickle cell anemia is a genetic condition that is more prevalent in people of African, Indian, and Middle-Eastern descent. It’s a recessive trait, but when a person has both copies of the sickle-cell gene, stuff happens. You know what else is prevalent in those areas? Malaria, which kills nearly a million people a year, and affects up to 500 million.
Scientists believe that sickle-cell disease (also known as sickle-cell anemia) developed as a genetic defense against malaria. Children, in particular, are vulnerable to malaria and are often killed by it. When somebody with the sickle-cell trait contracts malaria, their red blood cells turn sickle-shaped, and are filtered out by their spleens, killing the parasite that causes malaria. They still get sick, but they live.
Herpes might protect you from HIV
To cover our own asses, we’re going to say this first: the only absolute protection from contracting any STD is abstinence. Don’t think that these findings mean you can go out and have unprotected sex with the first hooker you can find.
A recent study at Cambridge University found that white blood cells that were previously infected with human cytomegalovirus (a form of herpes) were less likely to be infected by HIV. Another study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that the Seneca Valley virus caused tumors to shrink at a steady rate.
So what does this mean? At the moment, not much. The implications, however, are worthy of a sci-fi novel. Sometime in the future, infectious disease specialists might discover (or create) viruses that stimulate immune responses without making us sicker, or at least, without killing us. Cool, huh?
Synaesthesia connects your senses
Synesthesia is neurological condition in which a person’s sense are blended, and stimulating one sense elicits responses in others. Confused? Let’s put it this way: synaesthetes can taste sounds. Smell words. Watch music as if it were a light show.
Most synaesthetes confess that their condition can make their lives more complicated. James Wannerton, head of the UK Synaesthesia Association explained:
As I got older and more involved in the wider world, I found my word/taste associations having an increasing effect in my everyday life, subtly dictating the nature and course of my friendships, personal relationships, my education, my career, where I live, what I wear, what I read, the make and colour of car that I drive. The list is endless.
He added, however, “I would never consider the option of being cured, if ever such a thing were offered… It is a fundamental part of who I am and has most certainly helped shape my concepts and personality.”
Tuberculosis makes you pretty
Are you nostalgic for the Victorian era? Do you pine for Mr. Darcy, or envy Jane Eyre? Think nothing is hotter than pale skin, blushing cheeks, and a heaving bosom? Try infecting yourself with tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis was known as the “white plague”, killing scores of people in the 19th century. Its victims were primarily the urban poor, the tenement dwellers of large cities. (Fun fact: Tuberculosis rates are on the riseagain amongst the urban poor!)
Romantic Victorians believed that pulmonary tuberculosis — also known as “the consumption” — lent its victims an ethereal, waif-like beauty, with a pale face and bright, blushing cheeks. It was the disease of choice for tragic heroines like Jane Eyre or Mimi from La Bohemme, or writers like John Keats and Honoré de Balzac. It also killed millions around the world, but hey, at least they died pretty.
Pica gives you a career
Pica is a disorder in which sufferers compulsively eat inedible things, like metal, clay, chalk, wood, plaster, laundry starch, and basically anything else that will fit in their mouths. It mostly affects kids, people with developmental disabilities, and pregnant women (this goes way beyond pickles and ice cream). People with Pica are susceptible to digestive upsets (obviously), high rates of stomach parasites, and poisoning from the things that they eat.
Occasionally, they’re also susceptible to becoming famous. Any number of circus sideshows feature self-made freaks eating horrifying lunches, but the king of all the Pica geeks must be Monsieur Mangetout.
Michael Lotito (Mangetout is his stagename) is in the Guinness Book of World Records for eating an airplane. An entire airplane. A Cessna 150, to be precise. It took him a few years, but still, an entire frigging airplane. He also has eaten a number of other things, including television sets, supermarket carts, and bicycles. He has supposedly never suffered from any ill effects from his diet, thanks to an abnormally thick stomach lining.
Food Poisoning makes you look younger
Botulism is an infectious disease, most commonly spread through tainted food. Because of its severity, however, it is classified as a possible biological weapon for germ warfare. Botulism contains a nerve toxin, botulinum, that acts as a paralytic, shutting down nerve and muscle function. Without immediate medical care, a victim will die from suffocation after their lungs cease to work.
Botulinum is better known by another name. “Botox”.
That’s right. The exact same toxin that will slowly kill you is now being injected into the frownlines of the rich and famous. We’re not sure who looked at a possible biological weapon and went “Hmm, I wonder what would happen if I shot that into somebody’s wrinkles,” but that idle question paid off.
Urbach-Wiethe disease makes you fearless
A recent article in the journal Current Biology provided a case study of a woman who is physically incapable of feeling fear.
Also known as lipoid proteinosis, Urbach-Weithe disease affects the skin, mucous membranes, and the brain. It causes a peculiar skin affliction that can pass as acne, and its sufferers tend to have hoarse voices. It also causes the brain to deteriorate, particularly in the temporal lobes and hippocampus. In the case of “SM”, the subject of the case study, it damaged her amgydala, which is made up of two tiny almond-shaped lobes near the brainstem. The woman was literally unable to experience fear, despite the researcher’s best efforts. They threw snakes at her, took her to a haunted house, showed her clips from The Shining and The Blair Witch Project, and even hired someone to pretend to attack her with a knife.
You know, if they taught this kind of stuff in science classes in high school, kids might be more interested. Just sayin’.
CIPA makes you pain-free… but dead.
How would you like to never experience pain? No more aching back, no more annoying stubbed toes, no more headaches from hangovers…
No more knowing whether you had a broken limb, no knowing if your appendix was about to burst, no realizing you had just cut yourself and were about to bleed out. Okay, maybe it’s not so great.
Congenital Insensitivity to Pain sounds like a great disease to have, until you actually think about it. No pain is great, but not realizing you’ve just severely injured yourself — just gave yourself third-degree burns, in fact — would suck.
As if that weren’t bad in itself, the onset for CIPA is also incredibly early, We’ve already imagined the possible horrors of having CIPA, but imagine a newly-mobile two year old with it, running around the living room. Imagine a kid who’s teething. Yeah. Thanks, but no thanks.
Persistent Sexual Arousal Syndrome… makes you persistently aroused.
How would you like to have 150 orgasms in a day? Sounds awesome, right?
Dr. Irwin Goldstein, a professor at UC San Diego, begs to differ. “Every lecture I give on this, there’s always smirks in the audience: ‘Oh I wish my wife was like this.’ These are professional physicians,” the doctor stressed. “And I said, ‘No, no, you’re wrong, you don’t really want this. You do not want your wife to have this, please.'”
Women with Persistent Sexual Arousal Syndrome suffer from constant, unrelenting arousal, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It doesn’t sound bad at first — normal people supposedly think about sex every few seconds, right? — until you recall the numerous unsexy situations where you’d still be aroused: driving your kids to school, talking to your annoying coworker, meeting your mom for lunch… ew. Okay, we’ll pass on having this disease as well.
Hyperthymesia gives you perfect recall
Imagine being able to remember everything you did on September 18th of last year; everything you ate for dinner for the month of May in 2003; every moment of your eleventh birthday.
Hyperthymesia is a neurological condition that bestows near-perfect recall on those who are afflicted with it. One of the most famous hyperthymesia cases is Jill Price, a 45 year old school administrator from California. She is able to remember everything that happened to her from 1980 onwards, everything. Price describes her experience in her book:
“Imagine if someone had made videos of you from the time you were a child, following you around all day, day by day, and then combined them all onto one DVD, and you sat in a room and watched that DVD on a machine set to shuffle randomly through all the tracks. There you are as a ten-year-old in your family room watching The Brady Bunch; then you’re whisked off to a scene of you at seventeen driving around town with your best friends; and before long you’re on the beach during a family vacation when you were three.”
Lipodystrophy makes you buff
Lipodystrophy is a rare genetic disorder that makes you lithe and muscular. People with Lipodystrophy — in particular “Beardinell-Seip Congenital Lipodystrophy — typically have little body fat, and larger muscles. Lucky bastards.
Well, they also tend to have a lot of body hair, high blood pressure, and diabetes, but still.
Myostatin-Related Muscle Hyperstrophy makes you even buffer
Imagine being tough and muscular from the second you’re born. (No, we’re not making a Chuck Norris joke.) In 2000, a boy was born in Germany with unusually well-developed muscles. The infant was jittery and given to muscle spasms, even as a newborn. Doctors assumed, at first, that he was having seizures. As it turns out, the infant had a rare genetic mutation on his myostatin gene, which regulates muscle growth. In fact, the boy has the same mutation as certain cattle breeds that are known for being muscular.
The study of Myostatin-Related Muscle Hyperstrophy has serious implications for medical science, in particular for sufferers of degenerative diseases like Muscular Dystrophy. So far as we can tell, everybody wins. (At least until Chuck Norris challenges the little upstart to a duel to the death. Then we’re all dead.)
ASD makes you a genius (maybe)
People with Autism Spectrum Disorders (which covers severe autism, Asperberger’s, and other conditions) have it rough. They are often incapable of developing basic social and communication skills, have compulsive and ritualistic behavior, and are prone to self-harming. A majority have poor motor skills development and muscle tone. They also have Jenny McCarthy making an ass out of herself, trying to champion their cause by being an attention whore.
Also, about one in ten of them are genius. Savant Syndrome is a rare condition that compensates a lifetime of neurological difficulties with “islands of genius”; extraordinary abilities at odds with a person’s developmental disabilities. Living savants include Matt Savage, a musical prodigy, and Temple Grandin, an author and animal behavior scientist. In addition, some experts theorize that geniuses like Albert Einstein, Issac Newton, Mozart, and Immanuel Kant were autistic savants as well.
Parasites make you healthier
Living in a developed country is great, right? You get wifi, satellite television, decent lattes, and indoor plumbing. (You also get irritating Christmas commercials and five o’clock traffic jams, but never mind that.) The tradeoff? Good hygiene actually might be making us sick.
Wait, before you write this article off as woo-woo hippie crap, read this case study by researchers at the University of Iowa. Autoimmune disorders — such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and Multiple Sclerosis — are far more common in industrialized countries than in developing ones. In the University of Iowa project, as well as other research done with Multiple Sclerosis patients, the symptoms of the autoimmune disorders decreased or went into remission altogether after they were infected with helminth parasites.
Awesome! But also, ew.
Cowpox keeps you alive
What’s so great about cowpox? Well, nothing. Someone infected with cowpox develop a rash on their skin, which develop into painful, crusty sores. Eventually, the sores heal, but leave scars. Cowpox patients also generally experience fever, fatigue, vomiting, sore throats, and conjunctivitis. There’s no cure or real treatment, and it usually takes at least 6 weeks to heal. Really, the whole experience kind of sucks.
In its favor, though, it keeps you from contracting small pox, which is like cowpox on steroids. Smallpox is highly contagious, nasty, and sometimes deadly. It makes a cowpox rash look like minor eczema in comparison. (Seriously, if you want to keep your lunch where it is, don’t look it up in Google images.)
Because the two viruses are so genetically similar, the immune system of someone whose been infected with cowpox recognizes smallpox, and is better able to fight the infection. Cowpox was the first vaccination, popularized by the British doctor Edward Jenner, who pioneered the practice in the early 19th century.