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Worm Infections Affect More in Sub-Saharan Africa Than AIDS, Malaria, TB

Diseases such as HIV/ AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis take their toll on the populations of sub-Saharan Africa. But a new analysis details a more silent crisis — the extraordinary number of people suffering from infections with worms and other neglected tropical disease.

Millions in Africa contract malaria, tuberculosis or HIV every year. But the numbers of people with those diseases begins to pale when one considers the number of people with helminth — or worm infections.

Peter Hotez chairs the microbiology department at George Washington University. He says in rural areas of Africa, almost 100 percent of children have chronic infections with worms.

"So, all of the kids are infected with hookworm, all of the kids are infected with ascaris worms, all of the kids are infected with whip worms, and most of them also have shistosomes, also known as bilharzias," he says.

In a new analysis published by Hotez in the journal PLoS — Neglected Tropical Diseases, he reports that at least 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have hookworm. That's fully half of all the poorest people on the continent.

Hotez says the danger from worm infections is how they slowly undermine health — that's largely because they cause slow blood loss.

"They look like little leeches," Hotez says. "They cause intestinal blood loss. So that kids who are infected with worms are losing a milliliter or more of blood every day. And that essentially robs a child of his daily iron requirement."

Pregnant women are also widely infected with hook worms, so babies born to these women start life without enough iron something that's needed for growth, development, intellectual development and cognition.

"So as a result, the more hookworms you have, the shorter you are, the more malnourished you are, and not only that, the worse you do in tests, school performance and IQ," Hotez says. "So, what this means is that hookworms are preventing children from growing to their full developmental potential."

But simple cures already exist to treat these infections. And the good news, Hotes says, is that it doesn't cost much to get rid of worms.

"We can do this for 50 cents a person per year," Hotez says.

"Imagine that, to take out a group of diseases that's almost important as HIV/AIDS but for just for a tiny fraction of the cost…"

Hotez says many countries are joining with the not-for-profit Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases to fund worm-eradication efforts. He says it's important for donors and victims to know that it's easy and possible to cure helminth diseases.