3-foot-long parasitic worms, and rooting for extinction

What is it?: It's... ah... you know, whatever.
What is it?: It's... ah... you know, whatever.Courtesy Reytan
Roll 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.)

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

edco's picture
edco says:

On the Guinea Worm site you have the opportunity to be a "Preserver" - acting as a host, you could really give this species a fighting chance. Just another notch in your "saving the world" belt.

posted on Thu, 02/18/2010 - 7:58pm
Brence's picture
Brence says:

basically just tell us how not to get this weird mutation diesease so we wont have to worry about getting this disease because some of us drink alot of water , ok bye

Sincerly Brence

posted on Fri, 02/19/2010 - 10:00am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Yes, Brence, I can see how getting this information from the post and its links could be a little tricky. So here's the long and the short of it:

There are very few defenses against this weird mutation disease. Chances are you already have it, and may be mutating as you read this.

Generally I'd just recommend giving up drinking altogether, but, as you say, some people drink lots of water, so it's not a practical option for them.

What you can do to eliminate some of the mutagenic particles in water is to attach electrodes to either end of an unopened can of Billy Beer (check ebay), and pour your water directly over the can as current runs through it. Collect the "Billyed water" in a zip-lock bag, and then throw it away. Next, take a regular glass tumbler and fill it up with water from the kitchen sink. Drink. It's not foolproof, but it should lower your chances of infection.

posted on Fri, 02/19/2010 - 11:39am
Mycah Daniel's picture
Mycah Daniel says:

i think that the guinea worm looks rediculous and disgusting. i never saw anything like that before. What is the guinea worm on?

posted on Wed, 03/03/2010 - 8:23am
James's picture
James says:

I didn't fully understand how using lotion to represent germs was acurate as isn't it true that you can't wash all germs off your hands? and if you rub the lotion in all the way like

posted on Wed, 04/07/2010 - 11:01am
deonica's picture
deonica says:

ewwwwwwwww what in the world that is soooooooo nasty

posted on Fri, 04/16/2010 - 11:09am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

eww!!that is so discusting!im glad we have filtered water!

posted on Sat, 04/17/2010 - 9:24am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:


posted on Fri, 05/14/2010 - 11:41am
DukeTIP's picture
DukeTIP says:

Sooooooo gross. Like omg, that's super duper disgusting. I would rather cut off my arm than have to pull a worm out of it over a month.


posted on Fri, 07/16/2010 - 10:47am
Nyeja Skyee's picture
Nyeja Skyee says:

Wowww that is soooooo nastyy ! I feel soo badd for theyy ppl in those living conditions . Thank the lord for our wonderful living conditions we havee today . Somebodyy should really do something about this

posted on Wed, 07/21/2010 - 11:25am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

it is very exciting to educate your self of such enviromental heartwrenched artifacts. Travelers everywhere should be aware of such things as this most peole use unsanitized waters for facial cleansing. In this case would dirt be the best option?(CELEBRATE LIFE).

posted on Sat, 07/31/2010 - 4:22pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Well... you'd probably actually be safe from guinea worms if you used larva-contaminated water to wash your face, just as long as you didn't swallow any. As I understand it, the parasite has to get into a human digestive system for its lifecycle to bring it to the adult worm stage.

In any case, the limited range of the guinea worm makes it exceptionally unlikely that you'd ever wash your face with contaminated water, especially if you aren't washing your face in ponds and puddles.

posted on Mon, 08/02/2010 - 10:23pm
Zephyr Smith's picture
Zephyr Smith says:

people go through thingz for a reason but i glad its not me and im glad to be where im at! You dnt know what you have and how good you have it until you come here! Life is fulll of things we humans cant control or find the cure to but one day i believe that every thing will be at rest and a day where everyone has stop the madness! But what are you doing to stop and help the people with these dieseases and these varies of countries???? But i am gald you are doing what you are doing because i couldnt! People like yall are helping the world with the small problems and moving on to the bigger sooner or later!!!!!! Good luck with your research! :)

posted on Wed, 09/01/2010 - 8:57am
kayla and anna's picture
kayla and anna says:

This is sad, but it is good information to keep in the worlds back pocket to be aware of these kind of things. We really enjoyed it .. We will be checking our water from now on

Kayla and Anna

posted on Wed, 09/01/2010 - 9:14am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Interesting that it is going extinct considering it's a parsite! Yuck, it makes me sooooooo grateful for the clean water we have. It's nice to have things put into perspective!

posted on Mon, 03/21/2011 - 5:18pm
Bob Smiley's picture
Bob Smiley says:

Oooh! This is problematic and ooh so disgusting to think of this as growing in your body, but it is a reality and simple to avoid.

posted on Thu, 09/01/2011 - 7:15pm

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