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Antibiotics help combat dangerous tropical disease

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The disease is triggered off by the bite of an infected mosquito: together with its anticoagulant the mosquito pumps threadworm larvae into its host's body. These gravitate towards the lymph nodes, where they grow into threadworms which may be up to ten centimetres long. The body reacts by producing inflammation which halts the flow of lymphatic fluid. The consequence of this is that arms, legs and genitals swell to monstrous proportions hence the name elephantiasis. More than 120 million people worldwide are infected with the pathogen wuchereria bancrofti.

Adult wuchereria worms have a lifespan of up to five years. During this time they produce millions of offspring, what are known as micro-filariae, each of them smaller than the full stop at the end of this sentence. If the host is bitten again by a mosquito, the micro-filariae are ingested together with the blood. Inside the insect they mature into infectious worm larvae, thereby completing the circle.

'Although the drugs currently in use kill the micro-filariae, they largely leave the adult worms unscathed,' Bonn parasitologist Professor Achim Hrauf explains. 'Due to the long lifespan of the wuchereria worms, therapy lasts several years, during which time the symptoms continue to persist.' What is more, the drugs may cause severe side-effects.

De-worming the roundabout way

Yet the threadworm, too, has a sub-tenant, and this may be its Achilles heel, since in each wuchereria worm there are specific bacteria which are absolutely indispensable to the parasite's survival. If these bacteria die, the parasite will also die sooner or later. 'This is why wuchereria is susceptible to antibiotics which are normally used against bacterial infections,' Professor Hrauf emphasises. One example is doxycyclin, which has been used for decades for
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Contact: Professor Achim Hrauf
hoerauf@parasit.meb.uni-bonn.de
49-228-287-5673
University of Bonn
24-Jun-2005


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