Certainly, studying worm parasites isn’t nearly as bad as playing host to them. But here’s an essential distinction:
The medicos who go into this line—God bless ’em—do it by choice. Supported by the World Health Organization and various international charities, they travel to the tropics to eradicate diseases that afflict millions of people. Yet although we’re regularly treated to tales of Ebola warriors, we rarely hear about the tribulations of the worm docs.
For instance . . . [consider these ellipses a pause to enable the faint of stomach to flee
the page] . . . Ascaris lumbricoides eggs hatch in the small intestine, then migrate to the lungs; they’re coughed into the mouth and swallowed back to the gut, where each worm will grow as long as 16 inches and where each female will lay billions of eggs to be defecated forth so that a new cycle of life can begin. (The adults can exit this way too, in a large bolus that resembles a tangle of spaghetti.) The Wuchereria bancrofti worm sometimes settles in the scrotum, where it blocks the flow of lymph. This can result in elephantiasis, a wretched condition that features scrotal swelling to jack-o’-lantern proportions and an infection that reeks of death. Moving right along . . . [see helpful ellipsis-related note, supra] . . . the female Dracunculus medinensis migrates from the gut to a point just under the skin of, say, a leg, where she then commences growth to a length of as great as three feet, and where, ultimately, she lays her eggs.
When the thousands of babies make their joyous arrival, they blister the skin and pop through, leaving Mom behind. The traditional way to get rid of her is to wrap her head around a stick and twist very slowly—one turn of the stick per day—for weeks or months, depending on how long she is. (This treatment is so old that it inspired the ancient snake-and-pole aesculapius symbol of medicine.)
And so worm parasitologists are unsung heroes—and decorum dictates that unsung they shall remain. “We can’t show pictures
or even really talk about these diseases,” says
parasitologist Eric Ottesen of Emory University. “Society just isn’t ready for it.”