(The word ‘parasitic’ is frequently used to describe all sorts of people and behaviour from benefit claimants to tax havens. So it seemed appropriate to ask an expert. The interview began by asking a retired parasitologist for a definition of a parasite. After a lot of head scratching, the parasitologist agreed for the purposes of this interview, to define a parasite as 1) an organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense, or 2) a person who habitually relies on or exploits others and gives nothing in return.)
Interviewer: So, you say that you think that the study of parasites should be taught in schools as a core subject. Why is that?
Parasitologist: I would have thought that the answer was obvious but since you ask, I will spell it out. The majority of people seem to comprise a host population, and the few, form ‘a power elite’, who could be viewed as essentially parasitic on the majority. Like most parasites, they are a ‘hidden’ group. There seems to be an unwritten rule that the ‘power elite’ collude with each other to maintain a silence about their connections, and to protect each other’s interests. Hence, the majority needs a knowledge base about parasitism for self-protection. For me, the most significant feature of Nick Davies’ Guardian expose of the phone hacking scandal was that it made overt the links between the upper echelons of the police, the media, the politicians and the interests of neoliberal capitalism. Doubtless, this temporary exposure will be short-lived and soon forgotten.
Interviewer: Can you give me an example of how it would be protective?
Parasitologist: In order to demonstrate the usefulness of parasitology, let me tell you about a fluke parasitic in freshwater fish. The cercariae (swimming infective stages) mimic a favourite fish food, mosquito larvae … you know the wriggly things that you can see in pools of still water. The fluke larvae not only look like mosquito larvae, but can also exaggerate the mosquito style of movement, and are larger than most mosquito larvae. Any fish seeing ‘super-mosquito’ would do well to stop before eating it and ask why the ‘mosquito larva’ looks so ‘super’. Is it really a mosquito mutant destined for rapid extinction or does it have some investment in being eaten?
The majority, the human ‘host’ population, is also offered all sorts of tempting morsels that we are invited to ‘swallow’ but which will infect us to our collective detriment … the Big Society and Evidence-Based Medicine immediately spring to mind, but there are many other examples.
Interviewer: I see what you mean about the Big Society, which seems to be nothing but a cover for privatization of public services … a money-spinner for the city and the private care providers … but I don’t understand about Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM). Surely, you as a scientist would be in favour of treatments being researched and evidenced?
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