Roughly one billion people in over 75 countries are at risk for Elephantiasis, a serious disease which has the capacity to permanent disfigure and debilitate. Also known by the name lymphatic filariasis, Elephantiasis shows up primarily in rural or poverty stricken areas in India, Africa, Southeast Asia, islands in the Pacific and even Central and South America. This disease thrives in sub-tropical and tropical areas where mosquitoes thrive.
Taking a cue from one of the largest animals on the planet, Elephantiasis causes serious swelling issues in the breasts, genitals, arms and legs primarily. There is also damage to the lymphatic system as well as the kidneys.
Cause and Transmission of Elephantiasis
Two different types of filarial worms are the culprits for causing the disease. These thread-thin parasitic worms are called brugia malayi and wucheria bancrofti and typically occupy human hosts. These worms burrow their way into the vessels that operate the lymphatic system and control the fluid balance and immunity in the body. These worms can live up to five years in the body and during that time reproduce so there may be millions of worm larvae that end up in the blood.
The dreaded mosquito is the most popular carrier of this parasitic worm. The mosquito bites an infected human so it picks up the parasite larvae and it courses through their own bloodstream. From there, it takes up to 21 days for them to develop enough to become infectious. Then this larva migrates to the salivary glands of the mosquito where it will infect its next host when the mosquito bites someone.
Symptoms of Elephantiasis
It could take years from the initial bite of an infected mosquito to develop into the disease. Some people do not show outward signs of the disease but may develop internal damage such as kidney issues and lymphatic system problems. A chance blood test is how some people discover they have these parasites teeming in their blood.
Adult men more often than not have the worst symptoms as they could experience damage to their genital area, making intimate social interactions difficult, if not impossible. Their scrotum, testes and even penis could experience swelling, often up to several times its normal size. In women, their breasts and vulva may experience the same type of swelling. Both sexes may also have enlarged arms and legs.
Bacterial infections of the skin could occur around the areas where the significant swelling occurs. Cleaning this wounds and taking care of them can halt the damage in these areas. Infestations of Elephantiasis occur quickly with visitors who are new to the areas affected by the disease as natives have been exposed continually. In this case, visitors may show signs as quickly as six months.
There are two drugs that have been successful in killing the most of these parasitic worms in the body. Diethylcarbamazine or DEC and albendazole are these drugs and many doctors may prescribe them together to ensure the killing of these parasitic worms in the adult stage so they do not have the chance to reproduce. There is no true vaccine and particular course of treatment otherwise.
When visiting these areas where Elephantiasis is prevalent, it is important to take the proper precautions to prevent the mosquito bites which transmit the disease. Long sleeved clothing, DEET insect repellent and insecticide treated bedding and mosquito netting go a long way toward protecting your body.
Photo: Jose Roberto V Moraes via Flickr