Filariasis is a tropical disease spread through filarial worms. It is most commonly seen in the tropical areas of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. It is believed that cases of filariasis have been around for approximately 4000 years. There are even artifacts from the ancient Egyptians depicting the disease. Filariasis is a serious condition that is usually not noticed until the adult worms die. Although the disease is usually not deadly, it can cause permanent damage to the lymphatic system, kidneys, or any other body part that has been affected by the condition.
The cause of filariasis is filarial nematode worms. There are eight varieties of filarial worms that cause filariasis, divided into three types based on which areas of the body they affect, either the tissues and skin, the lymphatic system, or the stomach, lungs, and heart. Filarial worms have a complicated lifespan, being first born in a human host, and then removed from the human through a mosquito or other blood-sucking bug. Finally, the mature larvae are inserted into a new host when the insect feeds again.
Lymphatic filariasis is the most common strain of this disease. It usually affects the lower half of the body, resulting in thick, swollen limbs and, in men, mutated genitalia. Called elephantitis, this condition, if left untreated, can drastically deform the infected individuals until their lower halves are unrecognizable as human. Other forms of filariasis can result in blindness, rashes, abdominal pain, or arthritis-like symptoms.
Filariasis can be difficult to diagnose. Because the worms are nocturnal, they only show up in blood drawn at night. After a blood test has confirmed the presence of filarial worms, medications can be used to get rid of the worms. Albendazole and Ivermectin are two of the most common medications used as treatment. Antibiotics, such as doxycycline, can be used to kill the bacteria that live inside the worms, which will also kill the worms.
There are ongoing efforts to eradicate filarial worms permanently, preventing millions of infestations every year. The Global Program to Eliminate LF is an organization focused on developing ways to treat and prevent additional cases of filariasis, and has already prevented millions of infections, mostly in children. Because the disease is commonly found in poverty stricken areas that are usually lacking adequate health care, developing a vaccination that can be cheaply and easily distributed may be the best chance to stop the further spread of filariasis.