How far are you willing to go to treat your allergy and asthma problems?
Would you allow your doctor to infect you with parasitic worms in order to suppress your allergy immune system? Apparently there are allergy sufferers who would.
A physician/scientist conducted a study that involved the intentional infection of 15 allergy patients with hookworms. Another 15 were part of the control group (allergy patients in the study that were not infected for the study). The infected patients had marked reduction of allergy symptoms compared to the control group.
A New York Times article reported that Dr. David Pritchard, an immunologist-biologist at the University of Nottingham, while doing field work in Papua New Guinea, noticed that Papuans infected with the hookworm Necatur americanus, had fewer allergy symptoms, asthma, and other immune-related problems.
Dr. Pritchard was so confident about the safety of experimental infection with hookworms that he infected himself with several of them to prove his point. Although he admitted to some abdominal pain and diarrhea, he concluded that by using only 10 worms instead of 50 (the number he used on himself) for infection, side effects could be minimized. He subsequently gained approval from a British ethics committee to launch his first study (referred to above).
You must be wondering at this point: What are Hookworms?
There are two major species of hookworms that infect humans. Necatur americanus is found in North and South America, Central Africa, Indonesia, islands of the South Pacific and parts of India. Ancylostoma duodenale causes infections in Mediterranean countries, Iran, India, Pakistan and the Far East.
Necatur americanus is the hookworm prevalent in New Guinea and studied by Dr. Pritchard. This parasite is found in areas of poor sanitation where human feces contaminate the soil. The soil must be moist in order to maintain the larvae of the hookworm. This is why the tropics and subtropics are the primary areas where hookworms are found. The hookworm Necator americanus gains access to humans by penetrating the skin of the feet. The life cycle of the hookworm is dependent on human or animal infection.
It takes three or more hookworms to infect humans. Walking barefoot through soil containing the larvae allows for skin attachment. After getting through the skin they migrate to the lungs over 1-3 weeks. Once in the lungs, they cross through the small blood vessels to the airways where they ascend the tracheobronchial passage to the throat. They are subsequently swallowed eventually landing in the small intestines where they attach to the walls and mature. As they reside in the intestines, they suck blood and serum proteins from small blood vessels of the intestinal wall for feeding. Once the larvae mature to adults, the males fertilize a female which will lay eggs in the intestines. Eggs from the hookworm may be found in the stool about 6-8 weeks after infection.
Hookworms may last for 17-18 years in the intestines of humans. In Third World countries, hookworm infections are a major cause of anemia and they contribute to malnutrition. There are 65,000 deaths annually in the tropics from hookworms. Hundreds of thousands suffer from anemia as a result of hookworm infection.
Dr. Pritchard is launching a new study to investigate how hookworms suppress the allergic process. Each volunteer will be asked to allow themself to be infected with 10 hookworms. They will then be studied for a number of months to years. Dr. Pritchard notes that people without nutritional risks or anemia should not have problems with experimental hookworm infection. Hookworm infection is very treatable with oral medication when it is desirable to get rid of them. None of his original study patients became severely ill or died. In fact, he claims some of the infected study patients asked to keep their hookworms. Furthermore, Dr. Pritchard says people from all over the world are emailing him requests to be infected with hookworm to treat their medical problems.
What do you think about being infected with hookworms to manage your asthma or allergy problems?
If you had the choice between allergy shots every month for 5 years, or a wrap for the arm containing 10 hookworms to start your infection, which one would you choose?
A parting suggestion_: If you plan on vacationing in the tropics, or in a warm, humid area with questionable sanitation, always wear shoes._
Board Certified Allergist and Asthma Specialist