Guinea Worm Disease (Dracunculiasis)

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How does Guinea worm disease spread?

People become infected with Guinea worm by drinking water from ponds and other stagnant water containing tiny "water fleas" that carry the Guinea worm larvae. The larvae are eaten by the water fleas that live in these water sources.

Once drunk, the larvae are released from copepods in the stomach and penetrate the digestive track, passing into the body cavity. During the next 10-14 months, the female larvae grow into full-size adults. These adults are 60-100 centimeters (2-3 feet) long and as wide as a cooked spaghetti noodle.

When the adult female worm is ready to come out, it creates a blister on the skin anywhere on the body, but usually on the legs and feet. This blister causes a very painful burning feeling and it bursts within 24-72 hours. Immersing the affected body part into water helps relieve the pain. It also causes the Guinea worm to come out of the wound and release a milky white liquid into the water that contains millions of immature larvae. This contaminates the water supply and starts the cycle over again. For several days, the female worm can release more larvae whenever it comes in contact with water.

What are the signs and symptoms of Guinea worm disease?

People do not usually have symptoms until about one year after they become infected. A few days to hours before the worm comes out of the skin, the person may develop a fever, swelling, and pain in the area. More than 90% of the worms come out of the legs and feet, but worms can appear on other body parts too.

People in remote rural communities who have Guinea worm disease often do not have access to health care. When the adult female worm comes out of the skin, it can be very painful, slow, and disabling. Often, the wound caused by the worm develops a secondary bacterial infection. This makes the pain worse and can increase the time an infected person is unable to function to weeks or even months. Sometimes, permanent damage occurs if a person's joints are infected and become locked.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/3/2015
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