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What is Filariasis?

Margo Upson
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Filariasis is a tropical disease spread through filarial worms. It is most commonly seen in the tropical areas of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. It is believed that cases of filariasis have been around for approximately 4000 years. There are even artifacts from the ancient Egyptians depicting the disease. Filariasis is a serious condition that is usually not noticed until the adult worms die. Although the disease is usually not deadly, it can cause permanent damage to the lymphatic system, kidneys, or any other body part that has been affected by the condition.

The cause of filariasis is filarial nematode worms. There are eight varieties of filarial worms that cause filariasis, divided into three types based on which areas of the body they affect, either the tissues and skin, the lymphatic system, or the stomach, lungs, and heart. Filarial worms have a complicated lifespan, being first born in a human host, and then removed from the human through a mosquito or other blood-sucking bug. Finally, the mature larvae are inserted into a new host when the insect feeds again.

Lymphatic filariasis is the most common strain of this disease. It usually affects the lower half of the body, resulting in thick, swollen limbs and, in men, mutated genitalia. Called elephantitis, this condition, if left untreated, can drastically deform the infected individuals until their lower halves are unrecognizable as human. Other forms of filariasis can result in blindness, rashes, abdominal pain, or arthritis-like symptoms.

Filariasis can be difficult to diagnose. Because the worms are nocturnal, they only show up in blood drawn at night. After a blood test has confirmed the presence of filarial worms, medications can be used to get rid of the worms. Albendazole and Ivermectin are two of the most common medications used as treatment. Antibiotics, such as doxycycline, can be used to kill the bacteria that live inside the worms, which will also kill the worms.

There are ongoing efforts to eradicate filarial worms permanently, preventing millions of infestations every year. The Global Program to Eliminate LF is an organization focused on developing ways to treat and prevent additional cases of filariasis, and has already prevented millions of infections, mostly in children. Because the disease is commonly found in poverty stricken areas that are usually lacking adequate health care, developing a vaccination that can be cheaply and easily distributed may be the best chance to stop the further spread of filariasis.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margo Upson
By Margo Upson
With a vast academic background that has ranged from psychology and culinary arts to criminal justice and education, Margo Upson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her role as a The Health Board writer. Her wide-ranging interests and skill at diving into new topics make her articles informative, engaging, and valuable to readers seeking to expand their knowledge.
Discussion Comments
By Bertie68 — On Jul 16, 2011

My heart goes out to those people in the tropical areas where the filarial worms cause such suffering. The disease may not be deadly, but people who get it have terrible symptoms such as blindness, arthritis-like symptoms, and rashes. The worst variety of the illness is lymphatic filariasis. It has been named elephantiasis because the lower body swells up so much, it doesn't look like human body parts. They need to be treated with medication, including antibiotics, to prevent this.

Since this disease goes back at least 4,000 years, think of all the people who endured filariasis, without the benefit of modern medicine. But I guess it's possible they had some herbs that alleviated some of the effects.

By lovealot — On Jul 15, 2011

Something has to be done about all the horrible tropical diseases common in tropical areas of Africa, Asia and South America. Filariasis sounds like an especially nasty illness and the way it is transmitted is awful.

It's amazing that the worm that causes the disease is actually born in a human host, sucked out by bloodsucking insects, like a mosquito, and deposited in another body by a bite. And it can't even be diagnosed except by a blood test taken at night.

Thank good there are programs to help eradicate the worms and the bacteria inside. Hopefully, the health programs can stop the disease from spreading.

Margo Upson
Margo Upson
With a vast academic background that has ranged from psychology and culinary arts to criminal justice and education,...
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