A deadly parasitic worm that quietly inhabits the guts of humans the world over has, according to some researchers, been the most neglected of the neglected tropical diseases—and health experts are finally hoping to raise its profile to stamp it out.
Infecting an estimated 370 million people, the tiny worm surpasses the worldwide reach of malaria each year. And in the right conditions, it can abruptly turn deadly, Australian health experts note in a commentary this week on The Conversation. Though it’s largely linked to the developing world, it can make its way into anyone, anywhere. In some Indigenous Australian communities, the infection rate is as high as 60 percent, the experts report. And it pops up in disadvantaged areas of the US and Europe.
The worm is Strongyloides stercoralis, a “threadworm” nematode that causes strongyloidiasis. S. stercoralis has a peculiar life cycle that involves unfortunate humans coughing up, then swallowing larva after they invade the blood stream. From there, adult S. stercoralis discreetly inhabits mucus tunnels in the small intestines, sometimes for a person’s whole life. It often causes no symptoms. But when it does, symptoms are often mild and vague, such as cramps, diarrhea, weight loss, or a rash.