Dracunculiasis is better known as guinea worm disease. The worm that does the damage is called Dracunculus medinensis and lives in microscopic water fleas when the water fleas eat worm larvae. Worm larvae that have been ingested do not die and therefore, it can happen that the water fleas are then accidentally drunk by people.
When in humans, the larvae hatch and burrow into the intestinal walls and out through whatever they come in contact with as they mature into adults up to three feet long.
Eventually, they burst from the body, often the feet but can come out anywhere, including nipples and the face. During this time, the patient suffers horrible pain. This disease is rare in North America but occurs in third world countries that have poor sanitation.
Worms take one year to mature after hatching inside of a person’s body. Symptoms do not begin until a few days or hours before the worm is ready to break through the skin.
Patients suffer from fever, swelling in the area where the worm will come out and lots of burning pain. The swelling eventually forms a blister.
Dracunculiasis, which has also been called Guinea worm disease (GWD), is caused by an infection, delivered by the parasite Dracunculus medinensis. Individuals become infected when they drink stagnant water, where the Guinea worm larvae thrives. Cases of Dracunculiasis primarily affect poor regions of Africa, such as Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, and South Sudan, where clean drinking water is unavailable.
The larvae are picked up by small water fleas, who consume the Dracunculus medinensis and spread the parasite to infect larger portions of the water supply. Currently, cases of Dracunculiasis are on the decline with only 25 reported cases of people diagnosed with the infection in 2016. That number is down from 10,000 cases in 2007 with significant decreases of Guinea worm disease cases occurring from year to year.
There are no drugs known to kill the parasite that causes the disease. However, the populations of guinea worms are declining so rapidly because of better water sanitation practices that it is possible for the worm to become extinct.
The only current treatment is to dig into the blisters on the patient’s body and pull the worm out with a stick or knife. The worm usually cannot be pulled out all at once. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it often takes days and sometimes weeks to remove just one worm – unless a patient is lucky enough to have it surgically removed. Infection from this procedure is common, so an antibiotic ointment is essential for the wound.
Painkillers like NSAIDs help reduce pain and swelling. Sometimes joints or limbs can be permanently incapacitated.
Currently, there’s no vaccine to prevent contracting Dracunculiasis and there’s also no way to treat the disease, after an individual has been infected. However, there are other ways of preventing occurrences of the infection, other than medication. One central focus is on monitoring water supplies to identify an initial infestation within 24 hours of the parasite’s appearance. Also, advising individuals to avoid wading into drinking water supplies has helped to reduce the number of infected patients.
Africa has become the focus of greater aid, providing communities with access to better, clean drinking water and overall improved water supply. Included in this measure has been the efforts to launch water filtration products, so communities aren’t drinking from open bodies of water. Additionally, organizations are reaching out to communities to educate them about Guinea worm disease and safe water consumption practices. As more improved facilities are created and the population is made more aware of Dracunculiasis infections, the spread of this disease will be slowed even more and may even be eradicated altogether.