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Cold Case

January 3, 2007 By:
Diana Aydin, JE Feature
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Dr. Harley Rotbart

When Dr. Harley Rotbart graduated from Cornell University Medical College in 1979, his father was overcome with emotion. At the graduation reception, where he came to congratulate his son, both father and son dropped to their knees and began crying, Rotbart recalled.

It was a moment of liberation for his father, an Auschwitz survivor who lost most of his family in the Holocaust.

"I think that my decision to become a doctor was Holocaust-driven and part of that had to do with the fact that many Holocaust survivors were terrified by doctors," Rotbart said.

"And I think that both consciously and subconsciously, I felt that I wanted to do something to put honor back into medicine in the eyes of my family."

Rotbart, who is a professor and vice chairman of pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Denver and a professor of microbiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, was drawn to specialize in pediatric infectious diseases because of the detective-like work needed "to make the diagnosis of a particular type of infection" and the fact that children are "innocent victims."

"In general, when looking at the pediatric population, this is a population of true innocence," said Rotbart. "And, in a sense, I guess that could go back to the Holocaust analogy also, and that is that, whenever innocents suffer, you're drawn to them."

Now, Rotbart has written a book, Germ Proof Your Kids: The Complete Guide to Protecting (Without Overprotecting) Your Family From Infections, to help parents, as well as doctors, navigate their way through infections, vaccines, antibiotics and "conventional germ wisdom."

In an increasingly germ-conscious world, where many parents look up their children's symptoms online, Rotbart's book is a reliable, one-stop source of information.

And, while the current generation is the healthiest and most "germ-proof" in history, some of the information at the public's disposal can be misleading.

On a recent trip to Philadelphia to give a seminar to doctors at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Rotbart recalled perusing the shelves at a supermarket and finding a number of unusual antibacterial products.

"So, there are some who are trying to capitalize on the fact that we are the healthiest generation by saying if some hygiene is good, lots of hygiene must be even better," he said. "There will be new inventions, there will be new discoveries in germ prevention, which will make us healthier, but they will not come about through the indiscriminate use of antibiotics."

Rotbart breaks down such topics, like personal hygiene, in his book. From the overuse of antibiotics to when children should wash their hands, Rotbart provides a readable survey of infections and diseases that is both informative and at times humorous.

While the book is especially useful when a child has a fever, it's also a fascinating read.

Rotbart explores the hygiene hypothesis -- "Can being too clean be bad for you?" -- and the people and stories behind major medical breakthroughs. The book's "Glossary of Diseases" provides readers with all they need to know about flesh-eating bacteria (it's not contagious) or the Plague (it's moderately contagious).

"I recognize the fact that what parents do not need is a textbook and, for that matter, doctors don't need another textbook," said Rotbart. "I think what parents and, in this case, doctors also need is something that is light enough and entertaining enough that it's a painless way of conveying the important information."

And, he notes, it's important to remember that "most of what's in this book will not happen to every child, but some of what's in this book will happen to every child.

"Even during uncommon times, even during unusual times like a terrorist scare or anthrax at the post office, common things are still common," he said. "And, if you've got a cold, if you've got symptoms of a cold, you probably have a cold -- even if the world is focused on anthrax."

But perhaps most relevant is the third section of the book, "Wear Your Boots in the Rain," where Rotbart looks at the science behind mother's remedies for a variety of ailments. When you don't know who to believe -- your grandmother or a medical Web site -- Rotbart has the answers.

"Not retelling what our grandparents told us but analyzing the scientific basis for what they told us," he said about the book and its focus. "What is the evidence that sleep is important? Or that reducing stress is important? And does it matter if your feet get cold when it's cold outside?

"How about vitamins and supplements, or those 'magic' elixirs and lozenges that cure the cold?"

Rotbart tackles such "momisms" like the benefits of cranberry juice for urinary-tract infections, or eating chicken soup when ill, both of which he approves.

"My recommendation is to feed it to your kids whenever they are sick -- it tastes great, makes the house smell wonderful and shows your kids that you love them," Rotbart writes about chicken soup.

Plus, it's a "wonderful excuse for eating matzah balls."

 

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