Courtesy ReytanRoll up your sleeves and prepare a glass of filtered water, Buzzketeers, because it’s time to learn about the Guinea worm. It’s time to learn about the Guinea worm… hard!
In case the title of this post didn’t spoil it for you already, or if your mother printed out the page but cut off the title, or in case your eyes just don’t read letters that big, the Guinea worm grows to be up to three feet long. Inside you. And even though everything that enters my body must first pass through flame, it still freaks me out.
The parasitic guinea worm, or dracunculiasis (which means “afflicted with little dragons”—you’ll see why in a second), was once found in 20 countries across Asia and Africa, but improved sanitary conditions have reduced its range to just 4 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Which is cool, because the Guinea worm is super gross and bad, but not good enough, because the Guinea worm is super gross and bad.
The worm works like this: little worm larvae swim around in puddles and ponds until they get eaten by teeny, tiny crustaceans called copepods (sort of like little shrimp). They live and grow inside the copepods until the copepods get swallowed by people drinking unfiltered water. (Just to be clear, this isn’t just any unfiltered water. If you’ve got electricity to power a computer to read this, there’s pretty much zero chance that there are any worm-carrying copepods in your water. If it came from a tap and not a puddle, you’re probably cool. And even if it came from a puddle, you’re probably still cool.) The copepods get dissolved in the drinkers’ stomach acid, but not the baby worms, which then move from the stomach to the abdominal cavity. There, the worms mate. The male worms die and get absorbed, but the female worms wriggle their way deeper into the body, and grow. And grow and grow. Until they’re about three feet long. They live inside their human host for a year, and then they form a blister somewhere on the surface of the person’s body. When the blister bursts, the female worm emerges just a little bit. The worm releases chemicals that cause the blister to have a very painful burning sensation, and when the host puts the affected area in water to cool it, the worm releases hundreds of thousands of worm larvae into the water, where the cycle can begin again.
As if that whole experience weren’t uncomfortable enough, the treatment isn’t a whole lot better. Because there’s no medicine for Guinea worm infection, the adult worm itself must be removed. The way to do that is to grab the exposed bit of the worm and wrap it around a twig or a piece of cloth, and then twisting the twig. But it has to be done slooooowly so as to not break the worm while it’s still inside your muscles—the process, which is said to be extremely painful, can take up to a month before the worm is fully removed. It’s thought that the ancient symbol for medicine, a snake wrapped around a rod may have been inspired by this procedure.
So, you know… ouch, blech, ouch.
Becoming infected once confers no protection from getting infected again, so people can get Guinea worms over and over again, and in addition to being painful, the blister the worm creates can make the sufferer vulnerable to more dangerous infections.
The good news is that preventing infection is relatively simple; infected people shouldn’t wash in water that will be used for drinking, and simple filters can keep people from ingesting the copepods that carry the worm larvae.
President Jimmy “Billy who?” Carter’s non-profit organization, The Carter Center, has been working for the last 20 years to eradicate the parasite. Despite some pretty significant barriers, it is expected that dracunculialisis will be the second disease, after smallpox, to be completely eradicated through human efforts. (Here’s a recent article on that.)
From what I’ve read (and what the Carter Center says), it looks like humans are the Guinea worm’s only host. So it seems to me that eradicating the infection would cause the extinction of the species. Think about that for a second. Usually sciencey types are pretty much completely against driving other organisms to extinction. But it seems like this one… considering how it pretty much only makes life worse for people who are already dealing with some serious challenges… should maybe… maybe… go extinct? I mean, obviously, right? But try that one on for size; I bet you haven’t often said to yourself that you’re cool with something going extinct. It’s a strange experience.
(If you just can’t deal with it, Here’s a website devoted to saving the Guinea worm. It’s satire, but subtle enough that you could probably play along. But, um, remember that sometimes the Guinea worm emerges from the eyes or genitals of its host. Just saying.)