What do microbes, human health and social equity have in common, you may think? Microbes are everywhere in our environment as we encounter them in our food, water, soil, air and houses. We heavily rely on the good microbes living in our gut too.

But according to the idea of ‘microbes and social equity’, published in a peer-reviewed essay in the journal PLoS Biology, not everyone has equal access to the microbes that are beneficial to our health. A lack of microbiome diversity has been linked to increased health risks like overweight and diabetes.

A lot of social equity issues affect our exposure to microbes. For example, poverty can create a lack of access to healthy foods, healthcare and a green environment. In turn, this may decrease the exposure to microbial diversity and its associated health benefits.

Some policies have negative impacts on microbial exposure. For example, current policies on maternal healthcare and parental leave may prevent women from breastfeeding their infants, meaning that infants might miss out on the good microbes found in breastmilk. Another example is the disparity between wealthy and poor neighbourhoods in terms of green spaces and parks, exposing residents of poorly planned neighbourhoods to a less diverse microbiome.

The authors state that better public policies are necessary to promote universal access to a wide diversity of microbes, in order for people to benefit from them.

The good news is that if people have better access to healthy foods, healthcare and a clean environment, their microbiome will be able to adapt over time and become more diverse, potentially making those people healthier.

Could access to microbial diversity be a new human right? Read more about ‘microbes and social equity’ by Suzanne L. Ishaq et al. 2019 in PloS Biology here.