Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Value of Parasitic Worms

Parastic worms, such as tapeworm, hook worm and others, generally carry a consistent 'Ewwwww' factor and hence the danger in bringing them up either in polite conversation or as a blog topic. My own last encounter occurred in Barbados, in the summer of 1985, when I awoke one night to a maddening itching on my right thigh. I zoomed in on the area and was appalled to see the flesh actually wriggling as if something was crawling around underneath the skin. When I told my wife about it the next morning she said matter of factly: "You've got worms! Make an appointment to see our dermatologist!"

A week later, barely able to survive the fierce itching, I met with Dr. Maureen Skeete who conducted a brief examination before pronouncing her verdict: Beach worms! She then asked me if I had reclined on the beach to get Sun, but in an area not washed by the sea. I told her I had, and she shook her head.

"That's where the little nasties hang out! Because the sea water can't wash them away, and they come off from dog droppings, donkey droppings or horse lay their eggs in the beach."

I told her that sounded like hook worm, but she said: 'No, beach worm is a different species. They are also able, once eggs were laid, to emerge under the skin and the little ones can crawl around freely until maturing'. Okay, cool! I replied. Anyway, she gave me some cherry-colored medicine that looked like cough medicine and told me to take it for three days, and the worms and any eggs would be flushed out.

Needless to say, when I venture to the island's beaches now, I don't lie on "dead sand" but only the fresh stuff regularly washed by the sea water!

Now, though somewhat disgusting, new research discloses parasitic worms may have some value after all, especially in allaying human conditions like asthma and severe allergies. Indeed, immunologist Helmut Haas, of the Borstel Research Center in Germany, is finding that these worms may even be the best immediate answer for MS and Crohn's disease. Meanwhile, in clinical trials, scientists are testing this theory by actually treating patients with either live microscopic eggs or larvae of parastic worms.

Indeed, many of these research workers point to a most interesting coincidence in the U.S., in terms of hook worm infestations. Almost at the same time shoe-wearing put hook worms out of business, asthma, allergies and a host of other auto-immune diseases flared up. (Coincidence, because these are the very conditions that insertion of parasitic eggs and larvae are most able to mitigate.) In other words, eliminating the parasites might well have destroyed an equilibrium that helped keep humans (especially youngsters) healthy in other areas.

Corroborating this hypothesis, in 2003, researchers at the University of Nottingham in England found that toddlers living in an Ethiopian city were twice as likely to wheeze as peers living in less sanitary rural areas. In the same vein, Ethiopian kids with roundworm infections were found to wheeze half as often as those devoid of parastic worms.

Meanwhile, in Argentina, researchers Jorge Correale and Mauricio Farez undertook another study related to mitigating MS by the use of flatworms. Current theory holds that multiple sclerosis arises from damage to the fatty sheath insulating nerve cells. What Correale and Farze found is that when subjects were infected with flat worms, the MS symptoms improved. Their study is significant because of the average age of the subjects (34 yrs.), the length of time for the investigation (4.6 years) and the MRI scans at the end to discriminate the control group (no flatworms implanted) from the active group. Those scans found 14 enlarged brain lesions in the latter group, while there were 164 in the former (non-worm infested) group.

The danger in all this? Some eager -beaver people, prone to such conditions (and also doing a lot of googling!) saw some of these early promising results and began to order unregulated parasite eggs on the internet, then ingest them. This is not a good or smart idea, especially if one doesn't know exactly what the parasite is! For example, one definitely doesn't want to obtain a schistosome, ingest it and then get schistosomiasis!

So, if anyone is thinking of parasitic worm remedies for a malady, I strongly endorse consultation with a family physician first!

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