Just say 'Yuck!' to fight disease

November 5, 2004

Deaths from infectious disease could be reduced by stimulating people's "yuck response", a disease control expert believes.

Val Curtis, director of the hygiene centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said humans' innate disgust towards things that cause and spread disease could help to promote better health, particularly in developing countries.

Speaking at a conference on evolution and medicine organised by the school and the Centre for Ecology and Evolution at University College London, Dr Curtis said that disgust could have evolved as a means of keeping us healthy.

The centre's research into what people in different countries found disgusting revealed the same things, including bodily waste, decaying food and creatures such as cockroaches. These could all lead to infectious disease, she said, speculating that humans were "hardwired" to shun such things, since the more successful they were in avoiding infection, the more likely they were to pass on their genes.

Dr Curtis said: "It's led us to a whole theory of how the emotions are involved, and if you want to get people to change their behaviour, you need to break into these emotions. It's no good saying, 'You'll get sick if you eat too much', you have to say, 'You'll get fat and horrible and nobody will want to mate with you'."

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