Friday, April 04, 2014

ALIENS VS PARASITES: Fiery Serpents from Hell

If you think that vampires, ghouls and slithery things are creepy and scary this story is going to give you the shivers for some time to come, mostly because it’s not a legend but factually correct! Today’s narrative is about a creature called the guinea worm, which though that name sounds quite tame, is in fact one of the most horrible ways to suffer and sometimes die, in the tropics. See, from ghouls and vampires you can run, but this creature, much like those hideous internal parasites in Aliens Vs Predators, actually lives inside your body and moves around like a flesh eating train inside your system! And there is no way of getting it out, not even extensive surgery, because if you damage the worm and it dies it becomes septic and poisons you! The pain of the worm travelling around has been described as similar to being on fire, which is why the ancient Israelites called it a Fiery Serpent from Hell, although it is known by scientists as Dracunculus medinensis. The name dracunculiasis is from Latin and actually means  "afflicted with little dragons” and this disease has been known since ancient times and is mentioned in a very old Egyptian papyrus called the Ebers Papyrus as long ago  as around 1550 BC.

Out of all the animals in the world, guinea worms only infect humans. The worms are small, about one to two mm wide but quite long, maybe 60 – 100 centimetres long, and outside humans the eggs can only survive up to three weeks without a human host! They have to be eaten by water fleas (microscopic anthropods)  before they get into a human body and then they can survive inside the water flea for about four months.

Unfortunately in poor areas of Africa, local people have a tendency of unsuspectingly drinking water from streams and rivers without boiling or filtering it; the water fleas are so tiny and microscopic that people swallow them too. Once they reach the stomach, our stomach acids dissolve the water-fleas but not the guniea worm larvae because those are so tough, they can survive fine inside human beings, even in our acidic tummies.  These worm larvae are fine and grow in size for about three months, and even mate inside the human body, after which the female grows even bigger and starts to eat and tunnel her way through the persons flesh, towards his/her legs. What happens next is quite gruesome. The worm eats a hole in your leg, which is basically a rotting wound which becomes a very painful ulcer, so that she can stick her back out and lay eggs  whenever the ulcer is placed in water. Meanwhile the pain is so unbearable, like being on fire, that people by instinct want to put their legs in water, and then, with the drop in temperature the worm  quickly releases a cloud of her young contaminating the drinking water. The wound which does not heal due to the secretions from the worm, allows bacteria into the body and can result in death if left  untreated due to a condition called septicemia, which happens if decaying matter is kept within the human body.

Now guinea worms just tend to head for the legs, but not always. There is no gurantee that one might not migrate to your eye, or your face or even your private parts. Either way the common agreement is that the pain is incredible. Not just because something is eating its way through your flesh, but it secretes acidic fluids that cause ulceration and necrosis of human tissue. Just imagine a claustrophobic hell when something is eating you like this from inside and you cant get rid of it ! Surely this is a punishment straight out of hell!

Now the only way to even begin to treat this is to actually grab the female while she is extended out of the ulcer under water (ugh!!). You then have to very slowly pull at it,  being very careful not to break the worm which would result in all hell breaking lose, literally as it would poison you inside! So while gently easing the worm out, you rolled onto a small stick, which could be the basis for the coiled ‘serpent.'symbol. Remember that the whole process hurts terribly and there is no way to escape from it!

You have to have patience, and you can only pull the out the worm at the rate of  a few excruciating centimeters per day. This may take weeks or even months. During this whole time, the person is not able to work or take care of their children and can hardly walk or talk but must spend their time in hellish pain.

There is only one good point to this whole story and that is to note that the World Health Organisation has been valiantly fighting Guinea Worm Disease for years by creating awareness in affected regions on the importance of boiling or filtering water, and therefore this may be the first parasitic disease that is eradicated in the world: numbers of suffers have declined from millions in 1986 to only about 148 people last year, and it is expected that 2015 will see a complete eradication of this parasite from hell.

So now you know ! And, even if we don’t live in areas where such a freak does, isn’t that something we should be thankful for?

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