Hookworms As An Allergy Treatment -- No Thanks!

Sloane Miller Health Guide
  • Say your allergies and asthma are a constant struggle. Standard Western medicine doesn't seem to help or you're tired of taking inhaled steroids, tired of using your inhaler three or four times a week, tired of not being able to catch a decent breath: tired of having your life restricted in too many ways to count.


    How radical a treatment would you consider?


    Would you consider ingesting hookworms on purpose? For the possibility of reducing or eliminating your allergy and asthma symptoms?


    Think about it. You'd let hookworms, a commonly known parasite, live in your gut so your allergies and asthma would go away?

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    Does that sound like a great deal? Or like a horror movie with you in the leading role of host body?


    One English doctor is looking into the matter in a very personal fashion. He has used himself as a guinea pig, infecting himself with hooks worms (up to 50 at one time!). And in 2006, the National Health Service of England started human trials with surprisingly positive results.


    The New York Times reported on this story recently:  


    "While carrying out field work in Papua New Guinea in the late 1980s, [Dr. Pritchard] noticed that Papuans infected with the Necator americanus hookworm, a parasite that lives in the human gut, did not suffer much from an assortment of autoimmune-related illnesses, including hay fever and asthma... ‘The allergic response evolved to help expel parasites, and we think the worms have found a way of switching off the immune system in order to survive...That's why infected people have fewer allergic symptoms.'

    His long-term goal, he added, is to figure out exactly how the worms turn down the immune-system radar, so he can borrow the tactics to develop alternatives to immune-suppressant and allergy-fighting drugs."


    It's important to keep in mind that hookworms can cause significant health problems; this is not like swallowing your garden-variety earthworm. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Hookworm is an intestinal parasite of humans that usually causes mild diarrhea or cramps. Heavy infection with hookworm can create serious health problems for newborns, children, pregnant women, and persons who are malnourished. Hookworm infections occur mostly in tropical and subtropical climates and are estimated to infect about 1 billion people -- about one-fifth of the world's population."


    Yeah, THAT hookworm.


    My first reaction to reading this story was an internal: "OMG! Never in a million years would I do this; I don't care how bad my symptoms are!" However, it was brought to my attention that my First World attitude might be showing. A dear friend, who has mild allergies and asthma, and is from a Third World country felt completely opposite to me. Her feeling was that if these worms eradicated her symptoms she'd totally try it without issue. She went on to remind me that we have millions of parasites, microbes, viruses and bacteria living in us at all time.


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    Ugh. Yeah, I forgot.


    We Americas are highly bacteria-phobic: everything is anti-bacterial from cleaning products for our bodies, our cars, and our kitchen counters. Part of the so-called hygiene theory asserts that the rise in allergies may be due to our overly antiseptic society: a we're-way-too-clean backlash. My friend's point was that in her country, a traditional society where there's more focus on natural, less antibacterial, remedies, there are fewer allergies. Because of this focus, she has had less of a mental jump in believing that worms would be beneficial to her health and thus would be more willing to try them. But still, I in my firmly First World mentality can only think: "Ick, icky ick. Never."


    What do you think?


    For more information, see Allergy Treatment: A Healthy Dose of Hookworms? by Dr. James Thompson

Published On: July 06, 2008