"I'm sorry, Mrs. Peabody. I've never seen a child this infected; I'm not sure there's anything that I can do."
"But doctor, you must do something!"
"Well, there is one thing your child can do. But it's drastic, and would involve transferring his infection to someone else."
"Oh dear... Well I don't... all right. Tell him."
"Timmy, pay attention, son. You must touch another person. That will rid you of the infection, but it will simultaneously give it to whomever you touch. Do you think you can do that? More importantly, do you think you can live with that?"
"Oh sure, no problem. Actually, I already gave them to you, doc."
"Wait. So I have cooties now?"
Cooties: it's an infection that's ravaged recess for decades, with little heed paid to it by anyone over the age of twelve. Is it time for that to change?
Nope. Cooties isn't a real disease. But it can teach us about epidemiology.
Cooties is a decent, albeit rudimentary, approximation for how disease functions, or as Sue Samuelson put it in The Cooties Complex, "an interesting synthesis of a child's conception of disease and the modern medical world." In a way, it allows kids to learn about infectious disease in a semi-sanitary, innocuous manner.
Cooties are often described as similar to germs or lice (the term once originally described head or body lice), but their infectiousness puts them more in line with leprosy or plague. The condition is passed on through any form of bodily contact with an infected person. In the process of transferring cooties, the original carrier is typically healed. Merely being in the proximity of a carrier can also spark an infection. Transmission rates are known to be much higher between children of the opposite sex. Indeed, girls and boys often accuse the opposite sex of being cootie-carriers.
Luckily, there's a vaccine. All a child has to do is trace two circles and two dots on another child's forearm while uttering this rhyme: "Circle, circle, dot, dot, dot -- Now you've got your cootie shot!"
The vaccine has both pros and cons. A big plus is that it can function as an antidote, actually curing the disease. Another is that it doesn't utilize painful needles. On the other hand, the vaccine is largely ineffective at prevention and must be re-administered frequently, often at least once every recess.
Apart from imitating and resolving anxiety about the grown-up medical world, cooties also exposes children to certain social elements. Chiefly, it gives an excuse for boys and girls to mingle and touch one another in an innocent manner, especially when a game of "cooties tag" breaks out, in which the disease is transferred multiple times in rapid succession between a multitude of participants. According to Samuelson:
"Boys and girls are not supposed to touch each other, a reflection of both social codes restricting intersexual contact until maturity and also a general social wariness about touching at all. In some situations there is a definite restriction against boys and girls playing together, and this game is a way of circumventing that..."
While cooties are propagating throughout the nation's schools at epidemic rates, this is neither unsettling nor dangerous. The malady can occasionally be misused, say for the purpose of ostracizing a peer, but all in all, it's a harmless childhood game that facilitates learning about more complex, adult issues.
Most kids grow immune to cooties by the time they become preteens, at which point the disease only subsists amongst the "totally immature."
Primary Source: "The Cooties Complex." Sue Samuelson Western Folklore Vol. 39, No. 3, Children's Folklore (Jul., 1980), pp. 198-210
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