Researchers have determined the complete genetic composition of the worm that causes bilharzia, a disease that afflicts more than 200 million people throughout the world, especially in Africa.
Bilharzia is transmitted by tiny snails found in many parts of the world. In humans, the parasites are responsible for chronic illness - severe anemia, diarrhea and, in many cases, internal bleeding and organ damage.
Well over 200,000 people die every year as a result of bilharzia, also known as schistosomiasis or snail fever, in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
Nature magazine published Wednesday the genomes of the Asian and African strains of the parasite.
The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases funded a portion of the research into bilharzia worms.
The director of the institute, Dr. Anthony Fauci, says "Chronic infection with schistosoma parasites makes life miserable for millions of people in tropical countries around the globe."
He and other scientists say they hope the new genome information will lead to development of drugs and vaccines effective against the disease.
Bilharzia is contracted when people bathe or wade in lakes or rivers infested with tiny snails that harbor the parasite. In Africa, it is the second most devastating parasitic disease after malaria.
Nature reports the newly decoded genomes confirm a theory that flatworm parasites depend on a host for fatty acids they cannot produce themselves. The researchers say they also found a new class of genes that shield the parasites from their host's immune system.
Some information for this report was provided by AFP.