A laundry list of dangers can befall travelers while abroad: passports lost, wallets stolen, hearts carelessly broken by dark and brooding foreigners, but perhaps the most dangerous, life threatening, and difficult to protect yourself against is contracting an infectious parasite while out of your home country.
Still an essential first step before a trip, Vaccinations, unfortunately, aren’t a total guarantee of immunity against parasites. Although there are effective vaccines for common travel disease like Malaria, Hepatitis A and B, and Tetanus, there aren’t many vaccinations that protect against the multitude of parasites that plague many areas of the world. Parasites are especially prevalent in countries in the developing world where water is contaminated easily due to improper sewage handling and difficult to control bug populations.
Other then vaccinations, an easy way to avoid parasites is drink only purified water in countries that have a high risk for water-born parasites, unless you’re completely certain the water isn’t contaminated. By following that one simple rule, many travelers can avoid a multitude of intestinal parasites, including the very common Giardiasis, also nicknamed Montezuma’s Revenge and Travelers Diarrhea. In additon, lathering oneself in bug spray containing DEET in areas that have a high rate of bug-born infections.
Although all parasites are unpleasant, some are definitely worse then others…
[Image: USACE Europe District]
Commonly known as Guinea Worm Disease, Dracunculiasis is a parasitic infection found mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa. An old one, this parasite has plagued humans since before the second century B.C.E., when ancient Greeks wrote about its unpleasantness in surviving texts. From Latin, the name means “affliction with little dragons”; a phrase that pretty accurately sums up the effect on the affected.
Dracunuliasis is contracted by drinking stagnate water containing microscopic guinea worm larvae. These larvae then mate inside the infected persons body cavity. After mating, the male larvae die, and the females burrow into connective tissue and mature into actual worms that emerge from the host body when they are ready to lay their eggs.
Only able to lay eggs in water, the worms must choose a spot on the human body to surface from, which becomes like a scalding-hot wound. The burning sensation becomes so strong that infected usually immerses the spot in cool water – exactly what the guinea worm is aiming for. The worm takes this opportunity to lay their eggs in the water, which another human inevitably drinks, thus perpetuating the life cycle of this parasite.Image: Daily Monitor
There is no vaccine for Guinea Worm Disease, and the only way to rid the body of the parasite is to wrap the worm around a small stick when it surfaces on the body, and then wind the worm slowly around the stick over the course of a few weeks to pull it out slowly from the body.
The (relatively) positive news about this terrible parasite is that it can only live in humans, so there is a chance we can eradicate it. The guinea worm larvae can only survive for a few weeks in stagnant water, so if clean, running water is provided, the parasite would have nowhere to reproduce and would be eliminated in a short period of time.
2. African Trypanosomiasis
Also known as Sleeping Sickness, African Trypanosomiasis is a parasitic illness transmitted by a tsetse fly, leading to two unpleasant stages of disease. In the first stage, the parasite is transported via the bloodstream to important blood fluid sites like the lymph nodes and spinal fluid, where the parasite replicates in large numbers. An infected person’s lymph nodes swell up, and the individual experiences extreme discomfort in their neck and back, anemia, and heart and kidney disease.
The next stage is where the disease gets it ominous name. The parasites enters the infected person’s brain and central nervous system, causing confusion, a deteriorating mental state, and a total disruption of the sleep cycle that causes insomnia at night and exhaustion during the day. If left untreated, the disease will wreak havoc on the infected person’s brain, slowly robbing them of mental function, ultimately leading to death.
Sleeping Sickness is most prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa where between 50,000-70,000 people are currently affected.
There are two different strains of hookworms, but both types cause similar symptoms in humans. The two strains exist all over, including the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Middle East, North Africa, India and Southern Europe, especially prevalent in China where over 200 million people are infected. Tiny hookworms live in cool standing water, entering through skin, often bare feet, and make their way into a persons lungs through the bloodstream.
Image: Barefoot Nature Doctor
The worms are then coughed up and unknowingly swallowed by the affected person. Once swallowed, the hookworm enters the stomach and intestine, then latching on to the walls of the small intestine where they live off blood sucked from their human host. A human can be infected with up to a thousand hook worms at a time, each growing up to four inches each. A thousand mature hookworms can, in total, suck up a cup of blood from a human.
In adults, this lack of blood usually isn’t fatal, but can cause sever anemia. Hookworms are most dangerous in small children, who will suffer developmental disorders due to their lack of blood and often grow up with mental disabilities and stunted growth.
4. The Botfly
One of the nastiest parasitic bugs that plague humans, Botflies live in warm, damp climates throughout the Americas, New Zealand, and Africa. The botfly is able to deposit eggs on mosquitos, horseflies, and other insects that live near humans, and these insects transfer the botfly’s larvae into the skin of humans when they bite them; essentially laying the botfly eggs inside the skin. When the larvae hatch, these little guys are hungry, and proceed to feast on the person’s subcutaneous tissue.
Image: Animal Planet
This process causes an elevated white blood cell count because the body senses it is under attack, causing the wound to become puss-filled and swollen. Creepiest of all, the botfly remain close to the skin’s surface in order to breathe, so people infected with the botfly have reported being able to see and feel the larvae moving around underneath their skin, especially if the area is covered and the botfly’s air flow is restricted.
Once the botfly larvae has reached the pupa stage (around 60-90 days) it burrows out of the skin to drop its eggs on another unsuspecting mosquito or fly host, starting the process all over again.
Have you read or experienced another interesting parasitic infection? We want to hear about it!