A disease treatment programme started three years ago by Imperial College London has now treated over ten million African children and adults for schistosomiasis and intestinal worm infections in six sub-Saharan countries.
Schistosomiasis is a parasitic disease that leads to chronic ill-health affecting more than 200 million people in developing countries. Intestinal worms cause debilitating malnutrition, stunted growth and anaemia.
The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), supported by a $30 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was established in 2002 to tackle schistosomiasis in sub-Saharan Africa, where infected people are unable to afford the drugs needed for treatment. Schistosomiasis can be treated with a single dose of an inexpensive and effective medicine called praziquantel.
Professor Alan Fenwick, Director of the SCI, comments: "Simple measures such as the provision of education and low cost treatment programmes have now helped reduce the burden of illness for over ten million people. SCI is an excellent example of a simple and highly cost effective programme which has helped alleviate a global problem. Parasitic diseases are often left untreated because priority is given to more acute diseases such as HIV/AIDS and TB. But the treatment, which costs less than 25 pence per year, gives children a much better start in life."
In addition to a treatment programme, the SCI has also set up an education programme to raise awareness of the disease, and how to avoid becoming infected by schistosomiasis.
Professor Stephen Smith, Principal of the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College London, adds: "Alan and his team have managed a remarkable feat in treating so many people in such a short period of time. These figures show how initiatives such as the SCI can make a real difference in tackling serious problems in the developing world."
Schistosomiasis is a chronic parasitic disease caused by infection with the blood fluke (worm) Schistosoma spp. It is one of the most common parasitic diseases in the world, affecting some 200 million people and causing severe disease in approximately 20 million people. In Africa, as illnesses such as polio and tuberculosis have been controlled, schistosomiasis has emerged as a major silent killer, typically striking around the age of 35.
The parasite, which multiplies in fresh water snails, enters the human body through the skin, when people come into contact with fresh water, polluted by human sewage. After entering the body, the parasite travels to the liver, where it grows to a worm about a centimetre in length. Male and female worms pair up and then live for many years in the blood vessels around the bladder and intestine, feeding off the blood. Female worms lay many eggs per day, which escape from the body back to the water during urination and defecation.
In heavy infections, thousands of eggs escape from the body daily, but in doing so rupture capillary blood vessels causing heavy blood loss. Those eggs which do not escape become trapped in the liver, causing a blockage and extreme damage, eventually leading to death.
Those most at risk of schistosomiasis are school-age children, women, and those involved in occupations such as irrigation farming and fishing.