Guinea Worm

Let’s take a hypothetical, but typical, case: There is a swelling on a man's foot, like a pecan embedded under the skin. The pain is intense. He bathes it in the river to ease the burning. On the second day the blister bursts. From its ruin something like a soggy strand of spaghetti protrudes. 

The next time the man dips his foot into the water, the strand writhes and whitens the water with a milky fluid—eggs released.

Let's say the man is lucky enough to have access to a doctor. The doctor gives him drugs for the secondary infection brewing in the remains of the blister. 

She tapes the worm to a matchstick. 

Every day she takes two turns on the pencil, wrapping another inch of the worm around it. She dare not pull too fast for fear of tearing the worm apart (if that happens, surgery is the only way to extract the rest of it). An inch or so a day; the worm may be two, three, or even four feet long. The man will be at this business of slow extraction for weeks, slowly winching the Guinea worm out. He will be unable to work for three months. Victims without medical help may be crippled by the secondary infections.

The eggs the worm releases into the water hatch and are eaten by microscopic crustaceans called copepods. People accidentally consume these in drinking water. A copepod can't withstand the rigors of the human digestive tract, but the larval Guinea worm can. It burrows through the stomach or intestine to take up residence in the abdominal cavity. When full grown, the worms mate, the male dies, and the female finds her way to the surface of the body, usually on the feet or lower legs. The human body may announce her travels with a fever just before the blister erupts.

from The Book of Deadly Animals


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