Elephantiasis is one of the more terrifying filarial diseases, mostly because of the gruesome images available online. The nematode worms that cause this disease are transmitted by mosquitoes, which is one of the reasons for my interest.

The adult worms live in the human lymphatic system, and prevent the circulation of body fluid. Thus, fluid backs up, and causes the swelling and disfigurement you see in the photos.

The adult worms produce babies, microfilaria, that circulate in an infected person’s blood stream. When a mosquito comes along and bites an infected person, they ingest these microfilaria along with the blood. The worms then crawl out of the mosquito’s gut, and hitch a ride to the next person bitten.

While a great deal of work is being done, including large donations of drugs for treatment, there is still a high disease level in many countries. Additionally, the same drug has been used for over 30 years, which means development of resistance by the worms is likely.

Into this, a little bit of good news: the genome of one of the worm species has just been published:

“In the September 21, 2007 issue of Science, the researchers report solving the complete genome of Brugia malayi, one of the worms that causes the often debilitating disease elephantiasis….The B. malayi genome reveals dozens of potential new targets for drugs or vaccines and should provide new opportunities for understanding, treating and preventing elephantiasis and similar diseases. “

Right now, the hope is to reduce the level of infection in communities to a level low enough that the transmission cycle by mosquitoes can be broken. This new information may be a great help towards eradication.

BTW, while I was hunting for the life cycle, I stumbled over this: a bunch of “alternative” medicine for filarial sufferers. GRRRRR.

Anyone with lymphedema knows that acupuncture is a terrible idea. When your circulatory and immune system is impaired, making holes in your skin is just stupid. As for the claims of homeopathic cures–

I’m going to have to go lie down now, I’m so mad.

EDITED 9/23 to add: a very nice NIH summary of the research was published friday, which I missed.

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!