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Schistosome flatworm parasites

An unwelcome parasite has benefitted from open borders

When an Italian newspaper gushed about migrants enriching Europe's "biodiversity" last year, saying we should be grateful that migrants are bringing in a "rich tapestry" of "millions of microbes, fungi, bacteria" that "our world has lost", they did not include parasitic worms.

Published: July 12, 2018, 9:11 am

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    The clandestine migration underway has almost become unstoppable, crossing frontiers, unloading on Europe – and on Italy which is its advance guard – millions of microbes, fungi, bacteria coming from Africa.

    A possible public health crisis facing Europe, was presented by La Stampa as “enrichment” of an “impoverished” EU. The Italian daily tried to convince their readers last year that migration would be an advancement to public health and science.

    Duccio Cavalieri, professor in the department of Biology at the University of Florence has welcomed new diseases: “We have become fragile. Less rich. A richness that Africa, from which multitudes are trying to flee, abounds. The great migration, among its many effects, may conceal one that is little researched: millions of bacteria are invading Italy. In African populations there lurks a great quantity (and variety) of microrganisms that our world has lost.”

    But Karl Hoffmann, a professor of parasitology at Aberystwyth University, noted in The Independent that “human diseases caused by parasitic worms were thought to be confined to resource poor communities throughout Africa, Asia and South America”.

    In this age open borders, parasitic worms are slowly but surely moving into parts of Europe and North America.

    “The long-term consequences of increased parasitic worm distributions are difficult to predict, but the harm that infection causes highlights the need for developing control strategies that can mitigate this 21st-century threat to global health,” says Hoffmann

    “Schistosomiasis – which is caused by infection with blood dwelling schistosome flatworms – currently affects hundreds of millions of people every year, often leading to the deaths of thousands to hundreds of thousands of victims. Its impact is so great that some have claimed it is second only to malaria on the scale of devastating parasitic diseases,” he added.

    Approximately 85 per cent of all human schistosomasis cases today are found in sub-Saharan Africa, but outbreaks have recently been reported on the island of Corsica, which is part of France and the EU. Parasites infect humans when they come into contact with certain types of freshwater snail that produce human-infective stage schistosomes.

    These parasitic worms rapidly penetrate the skin within the blood vessels surrounding the intestines or bladder of infected individuals, producing hundreds to thousands of eggs daily. The eggs induce chronic complications including inflammation, tissue scarring, fluid imbalances, anaemia and, eventually, death.

    Schistosomiasis can persist for years and chronic infection can also lead to increased risk of bladder cancer. Eggs have even been found in the brain or spinal cord, causing seizures or paralysis.

    Eggs are released into the environment when an infected individual defecates or urinates. If these eggs reach fresh water, they can hatch, effectively completing their life cycle.

    Inappropriate water and sewage sanitation infrastructures contribute to the transmission of schistosomiasis in endemic areas.

    Environmental conditions that predispose to infection: Activities that can lead to contact with infested water range from wading, bathing and swimming to scuba diving, water skiing and rafting. Contaminated water sources include canals, lakes, rivers, streams, and springs.

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